When you win 189 matches in a row, mathematically, the odds against you increase. So it was on that cold Siberian day in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, that Kaori Icho, the legendary women’s wrestler from Japan, lost. Falling to a Mongolian student named Orkhon Purevdorj 10 years younger, the 31-year-old Icho experienced the end to an undefeated streak that lasted 13 years, 9 World championships and 3 Olympic championships.
“There’s enough time to put things right,” said Japan national team director Kazuhito Sakae. “I’m relieved it wasn’t the Olympics. I believe she can win her fourth-straight Olympic title.”
Icho rewarded Sakae’s belief and resumed her winning ways, culminating in four straight victories in Rio. She earned that last victory, coming from behind in the remaining seconds in her bout with Russian Valeria Koblova. And as a result, Icho secured gold in her fourth consecutive Olympiad. No other woman in any individual sport has done that.
In fact, Icho has been reigning Olympic champion in wrestling since the women’s wrestling category was established at the 2004 Athens Olympics. You could say, she is the face of women’s wrestling, although she is less known than her teammate, Saori Yoshida, who like Icho, went into Rio with hopes of claiming a fourth championship in a row. But it was Icho alone who emerged from the Games with a perfect record intact.
The Japanese government announced it will award Icho from Aomori Japan the People’s Honor Award, the 24th awardee of this particular honor since the government established it in 1977. The first to win it was Sadaharu Oh of the Yomiuri Giants, the man who ended his career hitting more home runs than Henry Aaron. Icho found her glory closer to the ground. Like the gold medal, once in her grasp, it’s very hard to get her to let go.
Here is video of Icho’s come-from-behind victory taken by ring-side Japanese, along with their exciting chants and cheers.