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Undefeated in major championships between 2002 and 2016, Japanese freestyle wrestler Saori Yoshida won 13 world titles in a row and three consecutive Olympic gold medals, at Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012. Though she was prevented from making it four by the USA’s Helen Maroulis at Rio 2016, the Japanese star is hoping to go for gold again in Tokyo.
Born in Tsu, on the Pacific coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu, Saori Yoshida is the daughter of Eikatsu Yoshida, who won a freestyle wrestling gold at Tokyo 1964 and later became Japan’s national team coach. Just as he had done with her two older brothers, he introduced Saori to the mat at a very early age, when she was only three.
He died in March 2014, six months before she won her twelfth straight world title, a triumph she dedicated to him: “I wanted this victory for him,” she revealed. “He always put wrestling before all else, and he will continue to support me from heaven. I will be a champion for my father.”
In the 10 years between winning her first world title in Chalcis (GRE) in November 2002 and claiming her third Olympic gold medal at London 2012, Yoshida lost just two bouts, both in FILA World Cup tournaments. The first of those defeats came against Marcie Van Dusen of the Netherlands in 2008, and the second against Russia’s Valeria Koblova in 2012.
None of her other opponents in that time could match her craft, power and tactical know-how, among them Canada’s Tonya Verbeek, who lost 6-0 to Yoshida in the final at Athens 2004, the first Olympic Games to feature women’s freestyle wrestling on the programme.
At Beijing 2008, the Japanese retained her title by defeating China’s Xu Li by a fall, and went on to win her third gold at London 2012, going through the whole competition without conceding a point and beating Verbeek again in the final.
A passionate advocate of her sport’s continued inclusion on the Olympic programme, Yoshida then had to contend with a change in weight categories, which saw the number of divisions increased from four to six at Rio 2016.
Fighting in the 53kg division at the 2014 World Championships in Tashkent (UZB), the Japanese wrestler maintained her lofty status, beating Sweden’s Sofia Mattsson 10-0 in the final to win her twelfth world title in a row.
After paying an emotional tribute to her late father, she then set out her objectives for the next two years: “It’s a relief for me, and I can’t let up until the Rio Games,” she said. “I need to keep studying my opponents so I can get even stronger.” A few days later she won her fourth consecutive Asian Games title in Incheon (KOR).
Yoshida went unbeaten again throughout 2015, beating Mattsson once more to win world crown number 13 in Las Vegas (USA). In the 55kg category, meanwhile, the young American wrestler Helen Maroulis collected her first championship gold, presenting herself as a threat to Yoshida’s domination.
“Rio could be my last appearance at the Games,” said Yoshida in July 2016. “It’s going to be tough to compete in four years’ time but you never know. Perhaps I can keep going till Tokyo 2020, but I’ll need to win in Rio first.”
Yoshida seemed to be on course to do just that, winning three bouts with ease and without conceding any points to advance to the 53kg final at Carioca Arena 2. Facing her in the battle for gold was Helen Maroulis, with the Japanese taking an early 1-0 in the first round.
Proving sharper in the rest of the bout, however, the American came back to win 4-1 and inflict a first defeat on Yoshida in a major tournament in 14 years. Reacting to her shock loss, the Japanese legend said tearfully: “My opponent was stronger than me, that was all. I should have attacked earlier and more forcefully, but she was on top.”