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Kaori Icho
Kaori Icho

Kaori ICHO

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A giant of women’s wrestling

Japanese freestyle wrestler Kaori Ichō has never lost a bout at the Olympics and won her first gold at Athens 2004 before repeating the feat at Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016. The first female Olympian to win four consecutive titles in the same discipline, she is a legend in both her native country and her sport.

Facebook had yet to see the light of day and Twitter was still three years away from being launched when Japan’s Kaori Ichō suffered her last defeat on the mat for 13 years, in 2003, a year before women’s freestyle wrestling made its first appearance on the Olympic programme. Born in Hachinoe, at the northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, and hailing from a family of wrestlers, the Japanese athlete has put together an extraordinarily successful career since then. The first woman in history to win individual gold in the same discipline at four consecutive Olympics, Ichō has a perfect record at the Games, and gave notice of her rich talent in becoming a national champion at the age of only 17. A year later, in 2002, she landed her first world title, in the 62kg class in Chalkida (GRE), a title she retained the following year in New York.

Maiden gold in Athens

Athens 2004 saw the first women’s freestyle wrestling competition in Olympic history, with four weight categories in total. Competing in the 63kg class, the technically gifted and energetic Ichō, who had just turned 20, made short work of her opponents in the elimination pool before beating France’s Lise Legrand 4-0 in the semis. Waiting for her in the final was none other than the USA’s Sara McMann, the wrestler who had inflicted that 2003 defeat on her, at the Klippan Open in Sweden. The rising Japanese star gained revenge with a 3-2 victory, giving her a gold to go with the silver won by her older sister Chiharu in the 48kg class.

Gold number two in Beijing

A world champion in 2005 in Budapest (HUN), 2006 in Guangzhou (CHN) and 2007 in Baku (AZE), Ichō defended her Olympic title for the first time at Beijing 2008, having suffered a setback the day before when sister Chiharu lost in the 48kg final for the second Games running. When her turn to take to the mat came, Ichō, who stands 1.66m tall and weighs 60kg, proved to be in a class of her own, and sealed her second gold by throwing then reigning European champion Alena Kartashova of Russia to the floor in the round two of the final.

A golden hat-trick

Ichō won two further world titles on the road to London 2012, topping the podium in Moscow in 2010 and in Istanbul a year later. Though Chiharu’s decision to retire from wrestling and become a teacher caused Ichō to ponder her career options, not least because the two siblings were inseparable on and off the wrestling circuit, the younger Ichō ultimately decided to continue pursuing her passion. She was rewarded for her faith at the London Games, where she won through to a third straight Olympic 63kg final, taking on China’s Rui Xue for gold. Turning in a typically powerful, explosive performance, Ichō inflicted on Rui the same fate as all her other opponents in the British capital. Her peerless technique and precise flowing movements proved too much for her Chinese adversary, who fell to a 5-0 defeat. “The last three Olympics have just run past so fast, probably the fourth will arrive fast too,” said the three-time champion, who added that she had no idea if he would be going for a fourth gold at Rio 2016.

A rare loss

Despite winning an eighth world title in Budapest (HUN) in 2013, Ichō was still on the hunt for perfection. “Although I have become the world champion once again, I am not fully satisfied,” she said. “I have not yet gotten the most out of myself.” With the number of women’s freestyle wrestling categories being increased to six at Rio 2016, the Japanese great decided to drop down to the 58kg class, not that it undermined her dominance. Triumphs in Tashkent (UZB) in 2014 and Las Vegas (USA) a year later took her tally of world titles to ten. Then came a major surprise when she suffered her first loss in 13 years and 189 bouts at the hands of the young Mongolian Orkhon Purevdorj in the final of the Golden Grand Prix in Krasnoyarsk (RUS). Reacting to defeat in the best possible way, Ichō said it would make her grow as a person and that she was determined to learn all the lessons she could from it.

Four out of four in Rio

Ichō was not the only Japanese wrestling legend going for a fourth consecutive title at Rio 2016.  

Saori Yoshida, a 13-time world champion and three-time 55kg Olympic gold medallist in 2004, 2008 and 2012 was also on the hunt for an unprecedented quadruple. While the great Yoshida would fall at the last hurdle – beaten by the USA’s Helen Maroulis in the 53kg final – the irrepressible Ichō was not to be denied. In defeating Russia’s Valeria Koblova 3-1 in the 58kg final, she emulated the achievement of American trio of Al Oerter (discus), Carl Lewis (long jump) and swimmer Michael Phelps (200m medley), the only Olympians to have won gold in the same event at four consecutive Games. “I didn’t feel the slightest pressure at the prospect of winning for the fourth time in a row, though these were the first Games where I have felt a little scared,” she said afterwards. “My mother wasn’t there and there were a lot of other things in my head. I think I won this title because I wanted it so badly though.”

What next?

In recognition of her achievements, Ichō received the People’s Honour Award from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on 13 September 2016. Asked if she was planning to return to the Olympic stage to try and win a fifth straight gold on home soil at Tokyo 2020, the 32-year-old Ichō said: “It’s a possibility but it all depends on the shape my body’s in. Four years is a long time. If you’re not prepared for it, then you can’t set a target for four years’ time. I need a little time to think about it.”
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