Risako Kawai’s gracious, and daring, sister act

The Olympic wrestling champion won a third world title and qualified for Tokyo 2020 despite compromising her chances of doing so for the sake of her family

By Michael Hincks

How far would you go to help a sibling realise their sporting dream?

In Risako Kawai’s case, she risked it all. And succeeded.

The Japanese has claimed her third freestyle wrestling world title, winning 57kg gold in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

Three years ago, she became Olympic 63kg champion at Rio 2016, memorably slamming her coach down onto the mat in celebration – twice – after beating Belarus’ Maryia Mamashuk.

Risako Kawai twice slammed her coach down in celebration after winning gold at Rio 2016

The decision to perform a fireman’s carry slam on her own trainer was a bold one, but Kawai’s next move after Rio was even bolder - dropping down a weight division, all for the sake of family.

"I chose this path so that my sister and I can go to the Olympics together." - Risako Kawai speaking to United World Wresting

At 24, Risako is two years older than Yukako, a 62kg silver medallist at the 2018 World Championships.

This selfless move was also a courageous one, for Risako Kawai knew that by dropping to 57kg she would come face-to-face with a legend of the sport just to reach Tokyo 2020.

Kawai’s biggest obstacle

Kaori Icho has long been a dominant force in women's wrestling.

The 35-year-old – who went unbeaten from 2003 to 2016 – is a 10-time world champion and the only female wrestler to win four Olympic gold medals.

She had not lost to a Japanese opponent since 2001, but that 17-year run came to a halt when Kawai triumphed in their preliminary round-robin match at the All-Japan Championships in December 2018.

In a bout between two Olympic champions, one already a wrestling legend, the other on her way to becoming one, it was Kawai who won 2-1.

The changing of the guard? Not just yet.

Undeterred by suffering a rare reverse, Icho bounced back like a true champion to win their gold-medal showdown 3-2 thanks to a takedown with just 10 seconds left.

“This world is all about results,” Kawai told the Japan Times after her defeat. “But if I can’t be the best in Japan, I won’t be going to the Olympics.”

Kaori Icho (red) beat Risako Kawai in their gold-medal showdown at the All-Japan Championships in December 2018

Kawai’s revenge mission

Six months later, Kawai had a chance for revenge at the All-Japan Invitational Championships.

Kawai won the rematch 6-4 to set up a playoff between the two for a place on Japan's World Championship team in Kazakhstan.

The pair met in Saitama on 6 July, and the younger wrestler prevailed again.

It finished 3-3, but Kawai's bigger point score - two points for a takedown - meant she claimed a crucial victory.

After the match she told reporters, "I really don't remember much about it, but I'm glad I won. Over this past year, things happened around me that I had never imagined would occur.

"I had changed the environment around me, and in December, I thought about quitting wrestling and talked it over with my family. I'm glad that I didn't."

Risako Kawai (red) celebrates after beating Kaori Icho in the 57kg World Championships Playoff in Saitama

For Kawai, that victory was not only a huge feat mentally, but it meant a place at Tokyo 2020 was hers should she win a medal at the World Wrestling Championships in Kazakhstan.

She did more than that, beating China's Rong Ningning to claim gold and thus deny Icho a chance of a fifth Olympic title.

Now sister Yukako needs to make the podium in Nur-Sultan to make their Tokyo dream come true.

All eyes on the Kawais

This tale which has been fuelled by family is far from complete.

Both Risako and Yukako will know there is plenty of hard work to be done if they are to both compete at a home Olympics.

The World Championships will go a long way towards making that dream a reality, but they will both need to stay injury-free as well.

For Risako Kawai, the woman who willingly dropped down a weight and took on one of the world's greatest ever wrestlers, you can guarantee her focus will be on seeing out this most daring of sister acts in style.

And then, perhaps, Tokyo 2020 will be just the start of this sibling story.


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