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.
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.
In round one, Saori Yoshida of Japan takes a one point lead thanks to the passivity of her opponent, Helen Maroulis of the United States. Yoshida is a living legend – she has won 13 straight world titles and the past 3 Olympic gold medals in freestyle wrestling. As the captain of the entire Japan Olympic team, she is expected to cap a tremendous team effort in Rio – Japanese women have already taken gold in the other three weight classes.
Going into the second half, Yoshida is still up 1-0 on Maroulis, who had never beaten Yoshida. In fact, in their first match in the past, Yoshida defeated the American in 69 seconds. Maroulis has studied Yoshida’s techniques over the past three years, in fact getting an opportunity to train with the master. But still, early in the second half, Yoshida’s victory is preordained. After all, her teammate, Kaori Icho, had already accomplished the unprecedented feat of taking gold in freestyle wrestling in four consecutive Olympics.
In the second half, Maroulis fights off an attempt by Yoshida to drag her down, and instead manages to pull Yoshida down with her right arm, and get behind Yoshida for two points and a 2-1 lead. Like Icho, who won her Rio gold medal with points in the waning seconds, Yoshida’s supporters in the stands, and in Japan were anticipating a similar spectacular comeback. But with a scant 60 seconds left, Maroulis forced Yoshida out of bounds to take 4-1 lead. That turned out to be an insurmountable lead
For Japanese fans, the impossible happened. She lost.
For Yoshida, tears of anguish streamed down her face. She had not just lost a match, as far as she was concerned – she let down her team, her country and her family. “I am sorry to finish with a silver medal despite all the cheers from so many people,” Yoshida said through tears. “As the Japanese captain, I should have gotten the gold medal. I kept thinking that I would be able to win in the end, but it got to the point where I could no longer come back. I’m sorry I couldn’t exert all my strength.”
In Japanese, Yoshida repeatedly said, “gomen nasai” (“I’m sorry”) as if she had burned down a house, or lost a company a million dollars, or lied to the press about being held up at gun point. Japanese apologize for everything, as a matter of everyday politeness, even when they haven’t done anything wrong. But in this instance, you could see the pain in her face and hear it in her voice – she believed she had failed Japan.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t get the gold,” she said. Seeing Saori Yoshida cry and apologize like that pained me in my heart. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, carefree and full of smiles at the age of 22 upon winning an Olympic finals, she breezily stated “the gold medal was the only thing I didn’t have. But now I have all the medals!” Twelve years ago, the medals were her reward. But somehow, at some point, the medals became Japan’s reward. And in Rio, the burden of expectation was particularly great. Continuing to win is far more difficult than just winning once. You have to keep up with rivals who are studying your every move. You have to continually evolve. And she did, through 16 straight victories in the Olympics. To us, she was all powerful. But in truth, I believe Yoshida was always in a state of uncertainty, desperately figuring out how to stay ahead. And the more she won, the stronger she appeared…to the point where winning was a given. No one expected Saori Yoshida to lose.
And yet, lose she did. And an entire nation cried.
After the final match, Yoshida made her way to her mother, who watched from the stands. They embraced in tears as her mother said, “You lost, but you have this magnificent silver medal. I am so proud of my daughter. You gave it your very best. You are my treasure.”
Interviewed later in the day, Yoshida-san’s mother, Yukiyo Yoshida, reflected on the fact that this was the first Olympics where she was not accompanied by her husband, Eikatsu Yoshida, a former national champion and wrestling coach who passed away two years ago. Yukiyo explained to the press that her daughter told her, “Father will be angry with me.” But Yukiyo replied as all good mothers do, “No he won’t. It’s all right. You did your very best.”
There are only two people, both male, who have won individual gold medals in a single event four Olympic Games in a row: Al Oerter in the discus throw from 1956~1968, and Carl Lewis in the long jump from 1984~1996.
At the Rio Olympics in August, we may bear witness to a historical achievement by a Japanese wrestler, not once, but twice.
Both Saori Yoshida (吉田 沙保里,) and Kaori Icho(伊調馨) have won consecutive gold medals in wrestling at the Olympic Summer Games in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). And they won their respective weight classes at the Japan national championships in June last year to get their tickets punched to Rio. In fact, they both won their 13th straight national championship.
Yoshida of Mie Prefecture and Icho of Aomori are quite simply the two most dominant wrestlers on the planet. They are both referred to as the “legends of the unbeaten streak” (不敗神話). Ito has won 172 straight times since May, 2003, and Yoshida has lost only twice in her career, most recently in May, 2012. But they are both perfect at Olympiads.
There was a brief time when both Yoshida and Icho competed in the same weight class, but fortunately, Icho moved up to the next heavier weight class, setting up this year, a historic opportunity.
For some reason, Yoshida has become more the face of Japanese wrestling, as the front person for the Japanese security company, Alsok. But they are both supported by Alsok, as you can see in the commercial below.
But come August, we will be hearing a lot about both of these two wrestling legends.