“I would be the only person alive to have [met] the challenge of becoming an Olympic champion in women’s wrestling five times in a row. I want to remember the joy of winning an Olympic medal!” said Icho in July 2019, 14 years after opening her Olympic account in the discipline in Athens in 2004. She has not lost a bout at the Games since. “Whatever happens at the Games, I just want to give my all right through to the very end.”
Turning point after Beijing 2008 double
After getting the better of the USA’s Sara McMann in a 3-2 victory in the final of the 63kg on 23 August 2004 in Athens, Icho became one of the four first-ever Olympic champions in women’s freestyle wrestling, joining Ukraine’s Iryna Merleni (champion in the 48kg, after defeating Icho’s sister Chiharu), compatriot Saori Yoshida (55kg) and China’s Wang Xu (72kg). She retained her title in Beijing in 2008, where she faced the reigning European champion, Russia’s Alena Kartashova, throwing her to the floor in the second round. Chiharu, meanwhile, lost for the second consecutive time in the final of the 48kg and retired from sport. Kaori also considered retiring, having won her second Olympic title. But she found renewed motivation after experiencing men’s wrestling for the first time.
“I believe it was a major turning point for me,” she said. “I had actually considered retiring after the Beijing 2008 Games. My sister, Chiharu, had retired and I found it hard to see the point of going on to compete at the Olympics alone. I felt that, even if I were to win another Olympic gold medal, it wouldn’t mean that much to me. It was just around that time that I came into contact with men’s wrestling, and I quickly realised that I didn’t actually know the first thing about wrestling. I was so taken aback by the fact that I didn’t understand the essence of wrestling that I was actually embarrassed to have won an Olympic gold medal. I decided to start learning about wrestling all over again with a clean slate, and I remember thinking how much fun it was – just like being a young girl again. I wasn’t concerned about the Olympics, or winning or losing; I just wanted to study the quintessence of wrestling.
I didn’t know how far I could go, but the nagging thought of wanting to wrestle again drove me to make a comeback. When I asked myself if I really wanted to do it again, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’ Kaori Icho Jap - Kaori Icho Jap
This new start saw her claim her sixth and seventh world titles in the 63kg, in Moscow in 2010 and Istanbul in 2011, and then her third Olympic gold, in London on 8 August 2012, against China’s Rui Xue. Turning in a typically powerful, explosive performance, Icho inflicted on Rui the same fate as all her other opponents at the 2012 tournament. 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 Icho, who added that she had no idea if she would be going for a fourth gold at Rio 2016.
Switching to the 58kg category after the London Games, Icho took her tally of world titles to 10 with victory in Budapest in 2013, Tashkent in 2014 and Las Vegas in 2015, before doing what no woman had done before and securing a fourth consecutive individual Olympic gold medal in the same discipline, on 15 August 2016 in Rio, defeating Russia’s Valeria Koblova 3-1 right at the death.
“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.” In topping the podium in the same event for the fourth consecutive Games edition, she joined the ranks of Al Oerter (discus, Mexico City 1968), Carl Lewis (long jump, Atlanta 1996) and Michael Phelps (200m medley, Rio 2016).
Two-year break, then back to business
Following her success in Rio, the wrestler, who had amassed 189 consecutive victories and remained undefeated at the Olympic Games, took a two-year break before returning to competition in 2018, with a fifth Olympic title in a row firmly in her sights. When asked, in July 2019, to pick her top three Olympic moments, she replied: “I have so many memories from each of the Games I’ve competed in, and to choose just three is very difficult. I remember at the Athens 2004 and the Beijing 2008 Games, both my older sister, Chiharu, and I were competing for gold medals. After Chiharu retired, I became very interested in men’s wrestling and came up with a new style of wrestling in time for the London 2012 Games, and continued that style at the Rio 2016 Games. I became more and more absorbed in men’s wrestling – I wanted to learn about the various depths and difficulties, and the enjoyment, of wrestling, and was determined to follow that path to make myself even stronger.”
Kaori Icho will be 36 (she was born on 13 June 1984 in Hachinohe, to the north of Japan’s main island of Honshu) by the time she goes for gold number five on home soil. She explains that, when she returned to competition, with her goal less than two years away, “I didn’t know how far I could go, but the nagging thought of wanting to wrestle again drove me to make a comeback. When I asked myself if I really wanted to do it again, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’ I knew I was willing, so I just went for it. I prepared myself mentally, and decided that I would give everything I had right to the very end no matter how tough it was, and no matter how my results turned out.”
She added: “That was the main reason that I returned to the sport, and now I’m training hard and competing at tournaments to make that dream come true. Repeated training, taking part in matches and building up experience bring great benefits in the end. I believe that never wasting a single day and absorbing every little detail will help me to achieve that fifth gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games. I haven’t experienced many major tournaments in my home country, and I’m not really sure how things will work out. Actually, I’m finding it hard to imagine how I will feel when I step out onto the mat for the first time in Tokyo. It’s going to be special!”
Rediscovering her competitive instinct
On her return to competition at the Japanese National Championships in December 2018, she came out on top in the 57kg, a new Olympic women’s category. In April 2019, she finished third in the Asian Wrestling Championships, with China’s Rong Ningning coming first.
“I want to regain my competitive instinct, and also work on evolving further – that’s an aspect that I particularly want to work on,” she said with one year to go until the Tokyo Games. “If I can’t regain my instincts and keep developing, then I won’t be able to win an Olympic gold. At the moment, I’m a bit inconsistent, but when I’m able to put that right, I’m confident that I’ll be able to demonstrate my real capabilities. And the only way to iron out those inconsistencies is through training.”
Kaori Icho is already the greatest female wrestler of all time, and a true icon in her home country. In early August 2020, she will have an entire nation behind her. So can she make even more sporting history by winning Olympic title number five? “I won’t know until I’ve actually achieved it. That’s what I’m aiming for, so I guess that the fact that I’m challenging for it means it has great significance for me. I think the Tokyo 2020 Games will be the last Games that I will be striving for, and I want to compete with that fact in mind.”