The greatest female wrestler of all time, Saori Yoshida, was introduced to the sport at a very early age by her father, the late Eikatsu Yoshida, an Olympic freestyle champion at Tokyo 1964 and national team coach. Learning quickly, she went on to enjoy unprecedented success on the international scene, going unbeaten in all the major events and collecting 12 straight world titles between 2002 and 2014, in the 55kg and then the 53kg categories.
She showcased all her technical prowess, power and tactical nous in winning the inaugural women’s Olympic wrestling competition at Athens 2004, clinching the gold with a commanding 6-0 defeat of Canada’s Tonya Verbeek in the final. She successfully defended her title in Beijing four years later, getting the better of China’s Xu Li in the gold-medal bout, and then retained it once more at London 2012, extending her amazing Olympic winning streak in the process.
“There was a lot of pressure on me,” she says, recalling the moment when she stepped out to face her old rival Verbeek in the 55kg final. “London was the Olympics that I was most nervous about. From coming into the venue and stepping on to the mat, people were supporting with ‘Saori’ banners and waving the Japanese flag, so even though it was London, I felt much more like fighting at home that way, which was really inspiring.”
Yoshida adds: “Tonya Verbeek is a rival of mine I always come up against in the semis or the final of the Olympics. We have been fighting each other for a long time, so she knew my wrestling and I knew hers… I was thinking that the only thing I could do was somehow to deceive her, anticipate her and get in my tackles. I was looking to score points before she did, if you call it a strategy, to get the points on the board first.”
The nimble Japanese dominated her Canadian opponent in that 2012 bout, scoring three first-round points to establish a healthy lead at the break. “I can hardly remember my coach’s advice,” she says. “I just remember him saying that it was two more minutes and to fight like my life depended on it.”
The second round continued in the same vein, as Yoshida kept the pressure on: “In the remaining 20 seconds I knew I could not go on the defensive. But I had a lead of two points, so I was trying not to concede any points and to make sure I did not step back. When the countdown began and there was only four seconds left on the clock for my third consecutive Olympic title, I felt so great. I was overjoyed. I was happy, but when I looked at my coach he was the one crying for joy. The moment it ended, I did a bit of a performance. But I always put a really nice finish, from vaults to backflips.”
Taking stock of her unique achievement, Yoshida says: “London was the hardest Olympic Games, and before it I was really just hoping to win a medal, even if it was not the gold medal.” Setting her sights high again for Rio 2016, she adds: “At the same time I have my next target. I am not settling for three golds in a row. I now want to try for a fourth.”