By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Eight years on from claiming a stunning high bar gold for the Netherlands at the London Olympics, gymnast Epke Zonderland is yet to breathe easy as he plots his way across a qualifying tightrope to Tokyo.
Zonderland, the only gymnast to win three high bar world titles, missed out on an automatic berth when he took a tumble at the world championships in Stuttgart last year.
The fall consigned him to qualifying through the World Cup circuit, taking him to places like Baku and Doha to try to book his ticket. A win at the Melbourne stop in the series this weekend would ease the pressure.
From a physical standpoint, he is grateful that an operation in November has freed him of the chronic sinusitis that had blighted his career.
In addition to causing headaches and breathing problems, the flare-ups were hugely debilitating, leaving him drained of energy and short of fitness during the big events.
"I wasn’t able to train hard and it was tough especially being able to recover after practice," Zonderland told Reuters on Wednesday at Melbourne Arena, the venue for the World Cup.
"From December, it’s been getting better ... It can take maybe six months to come back from it."
The 33-year-old never feels completely at ease, however, with the sinusitis liable to flare up if he catches an infection or the common cold.
The outbreak of the coronavirus has added a new level of concern for Zonderland, who, like all globe-trotting athletes, spends plenty of time on planes.
"I think it’s quite scary because it’s so easy to spread," he said of the virus, which has killed more than 2,000 people in China and spread to Australia and other countries.
The entire Chinese team of athletes and officials that were registered for the Melbourne World Cup had to pull out due to travel restrictions installed by the Australian government.
TAKING NO CHANCES
Zonderland, a qualified doctor, did not take any chances with his health in the leadup.
He arrived in Australia weeks ago to do a block of training on the sunbathed Gold Coast where he rented a house with team mates.
Inevitably nicknamed the 'Flying Dutchman' for his aerial prowess on the high bar, Zonderland will be 34 by the time the gymnastics kicks off in Tokyo.
While eight years have passed since London, the tousled hair and boyish face that beamed as he claimed Netherlands' first Olympic gymnastics medal since 1928 remain.
His path to gold saw him upset China's defending champion Zou Kai with a thrilling, high-risk routine of three consecutive release maneuvers.
His title defense at Rio went poorly, with his preparations hampered by his condition, but he rallied to win his third world title in Doha in 2018.
He is convinced he still has the right stuff.
"Of course, everyone remembers my big routine in London where I did three releases in a row – and I haven’t done that since," he said.
"But if you count difficulty and execution, probably my best routines were last year.
"I can’t train as much now as I could 10 years ago but with all the experience I have, I think I’m still as good -- and maybe a little bit better than London -- especially if I’m really on fire."
He will hope to fire up for qualifying in Melbourne on Friday before the final on Sunday, which is likely to be a shoot-out with Japan’s Hidetaka Miyachi, who leads the World Cup standings on the high bar.
"I was able to train really well last month," said Zonderland.
"If I’m able to continue like this until the summer and qualify, of course, I will be able to get a medal at Tokyo. I’m sure about that."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)