Japan Wrestling

Dosho Earns Shot at Olympic Repeat With Win in Japan Team Playoff

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (March 8)—Having stuck it out through trying times since her triumph in Rio four years ago, Sara DOSHO (JPN) finally assured that she will be able to defend her Olympic crown at this summer's Tokyo Games.

Dosho edged world junior champion Miwa MORIKAWA (JPN) 3-1 in a special playoff to fill the Olympic spot at 68kg that she herself secured for Japan by placing fifth at last year's World Championships in Nur-Sultan. Morikawa had forced the playoff by winning the All-Japan title last December, where she defeated Dosho 9-2 in the semifinals.

"I had a lot of injuries, but I was able to come back and be here today," Dosho said. "I want to be completely healthy for the Tokyo Olympics and wrestling at a high level. From the time I won in Rio, my aim was to win again in Tokyo. That has not changed. I'll do what I can to make that happen."

Meanwhile, Keisuke OTOGURO (JPN) will join younger brother Takuto on Japan's team at Tokyo 2020 after he chalked up a 5-2 victory over Mao OKUI (JPN) at freestyle 74kg in the other playoff held behind closed doors at the National Training Center in Tokyo. Okui had earned Japan's spot by finishing fifth at Nur-Sultan.

Dosho had been through a lot in recent years, most notably missing almost the entire 2018 season after suffering a shoulder injury at the Women's World Cup that required surgery and kept her from defending the world title she won in 2017.

While less dominant than before, Dosho managed to win the national tournaments that earned her a ticket to Nur-Sultan, but she lost in the quarterfinals to Tamyra MENSAH (USA) and the bronze-medal match to Anna SCHELL (GER).

Sara DOSHO (JPN) defeated Miwa MORIKAWA (JPN) 3-1 and will represent Japan at the Olympic Games at 68kg. (Photo: ©JWF/Sachiko HOTAKA)

According to Japan federation criteria, any Japanese winning a medal in an Olympic weight in Nur-Sultan automatically filled the berth for Tokyo 2020. Fifth-place finishers could secure the spot by winning the ensuing All-Japan Championships, also referred to as the Emperor's Cup. A loss there set up a playoff with the Emperor's Cup champion for the Tokyo 2020 ticket.

Of the three fifth-place finishers, only Takuto Otoguro followed up with a victory at the Emperor's Cup. Dosho and Okui both went down to defeat, setting up the playoffs. 

The wrestle-offs were originally scheduled for Feb. 1, but were postponed when both Keisuke Otoguro and Dosho suffered injuries. 

Dosho, 25, said she injured her knee in January and did not restart full-fledged practice until mid-February, and she seemed to need every ounce of energy to hold off the 20-year-old Morikawa. 

There was little action in the first period, with Dosho scoring the lone point from the activity clock. Dosho padded her lead early in the second, countering a single-leg attempt by Morikawa and working around behind for 2. 

Sara DOSHO (JPN) gets coached by fellow Rio Olympic champions Eri TOSAKA (JPN) and Risako KAWAI (JPN) (Photo: ©JWF/Sachiko HOTAKA)

"My main weapon is my tackle, but in my head, I was hesitant to launch attacks," Dosho said. "The way the match went, it turned out to be a good thing.  I can't say it went as a I planned because I didn't get any tackles, but I worked in practice on putting pressure on the opponent and using counters, and that went well."

Morikawa, who is coached at Nippon Sports Science University by four-time Olympic champion Kaori ICHO and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Kenichi YUMOTO, kept up the attack, and it nearly paid off. She launched a driving double-leg tackle that forced Dosho backward, but was only able to gain a 1-point stepout for the effort.

"If I moved in the first period like I did in the second, it might have changed the flow of the match," Morikawa said. "At first, I thought I could get her to use up her energy, but she ties up well and she's strong. I kept attacking, but my opponent's defense was stiff, and I couldn't finish it off. It's good to keep attacking, but if you don't get points, you won't do well overseas or in Japan."

Before her surprisingly one-sided loss at the Emperor's Cup, Dosho had faced Morikawa three times—all while Morikawa was still a high schooler—and won all three by technical falls. It was certainly a much-improved and matured version with whom she now had to contend.

"Up until recently, I would beat her by technical falls," Dosho said. "But she really got strong and made it a tough match."

As precautionary measures against the new coronavirus, only Japan federation officials and accompanying team personnel were allowed into the NTC wrestling room where the playoffs were held. Even family members were barred. The media had to watch a livestream of the matches via Twitter or Instagram in the pressroom of the nearby soccer stadium. The wrestlers were later brought in one by one for interviews.

Given the limitations, it was interesting to note that all four women's Olympic champions from Rio were involved in the playoff. In Dosho's corner were 48kg gold medalist Eri TOSAKA (JPN) and 63kg winner Risako KAWAI (JPN), who has qualified for Tokyo 2020 at 57kg by winning the world title. On the opposite side of the mat, Icho, the Rio gold medalist at 58kg, was supporting Morikawa. 

Dosho, Tosaka and Kawai all have a connection as products of powerhouse Shigakkan University. Dosho said Tosaka's advice before the match was simple: "Have confidence, and don't let your opponent dictate the pace of the match."

Of the four Rio champions, only Kawai and Dosho will be able to attempt a golden repeat. Tosaka failed to make it to the qualifiers at 50kg, while Icho lost out to Kawai, who set up a clash of Olympic champions by moving down to 57kg.

"I feel I can finally relax," Dosho said. "I lost at the World Championships, then I lost at the Emperor's Cup. This would have been the end. I staked everything on this and came into today looking at it as a challenge."

Keisuke OTOGURO (JPN) celebrates after beating Mao OKUI (JPN), 5-2, in a special 74kg Olympic wrestle-off. (Photo: ©JWF/Sachiko HOTAKA)

Otoguro Makes Tokyo 2020 a Family Affair
Although the older of the two, Keisuke Otoguro has had to yield the spotlight to brother Takuto, who in 2018 became at 19 Japan's youngest-ever world freestyle champion by winning the 65kg title. Keisuke was also at those World Championships in Budapest, but was ousted in the first round at 70kg. 

On Sunday, it was Keisuke's turn to shine, and he did it with help from his family—in this case, his father. While dad was not allowed to watch the match in person, he met with Otoguro before it and offered some advice that would pay off.

As with the women's match to follow, the clash between Otoguro and Okui—who are teammates at the Self-Defense Forces Training School—featured little action in the first period as both remained tentative, and the only scoring was an activity clock point awarded to Otoguro. 

Okui, who was hampered by a severe knee injury suffered a month ago, went on the attack in the second period. But he was halted on a fireman's carry attempt, and Otoguro was able to spin behind for a takedown.

From the ground position, Otoguro recalled his father's words and, while pinning one of Okui's leg behind him, gained an arm and body lock that allowed him to lever him over for an eventual roll and a 5-0 lead. 

"I thought I could turn him," Otoguro said. "Before the match, I met my father, who wasn't allowed into the match, at the entrance. He said to me that I would probably be able to use that move. Even though he just kind of mentioned it off hand, that was in my head as I fought. I got in that position and I was able to turn him. 

"I might have used a different move and it might have changed the outcome of the match. I'm glad we had that chat."

Keisuke OTOGURO (JPN) stops a Mao OKUI (JPN) shot in the 74kg special wrestle-off. (Photo: ©JWF/Sachiko HOTAKA)

Okui closed the gap with a single-leg takedown in the final minute, but Otoguro held off later attempts to clinch the win.

The Otoguros will become the first brothers to compete at the same Olympics for Japan since Yumoto and his twin brother Shinichi made the squad for the 2012 London Olympics. Shinichi joined Kenichi as an Olympic medalist at those Games with a bronze at 55kg. Japan will also have a female sibling combination at Tokyo 2020 with Risako and Yukako Kawai.

"Since we were young, we've had a dream of winning the Olympics together," Otoguro said. "At this New Year's, we were reaffirmed our determination to go to the Olympics together, and next, that we will both win gold medals."

Otoguro, who had won national titles at 61kg in 2015 and 70kg in 2017, purposely moved up to 74kg last year in a bid to make the Olympics. It didn't go so well at first. In the second qualifying tournament for the 2019 World Championships, the All-Japan Invitational Championships (Meiji Cup), he lost in the first round. The unheralded Okui won that tournament and earned the ticket to Nur-Sultan, then pulled a surprise by making it to the semifinals and clinching the Olympic spot.

But Otoguro was not discouraged, and came back the following December to win the Emperor's Cup and set up the playoff with Okui.

"A year ago at this time, I didn't get the qualification at the Meiji Cup," Otoguro said. "I stayed calm, and I set my target to meet the standard at the Emperor's Cup. It worked out, and then I could go for the Tokyo Olympics."

Otoguro said it was awkward preparing for the big match in the same wrestling room as his opponent, even though the two had their own training regimens.

"We practice in the same place and our [dormitory] rooms are next to each other, so it made it difficult," Otoguro said. "But we were able to stay separate and keep our focus, as you need to do when everything is on the line. The coaches allowed us to put together a training schedule that best fits us. We prepared separately for this match in our own way."

Okui suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury that will likely require surgery, but said that was not the cause of his defeat. "I decided that I would wrestle, and I don't want to use that as an excuse," he said. "I thought I had to win however I can, but midway through, I panicked a bit and that led to this result. If I had stayed calmer..."

For his part, he wishes Otoguro well at the Olympics. "I want Keisuke to win the gold medal for us," he said.

Talking about calm, Otoguro said he is not the type to feel pressure and was quite relaxed before the match; Takuto, he said, was "more nervous that me" and was the one who couldn't sleep until 2 a.m. 

"I suppose there was a lot of pressure, but I'm the type that doesn't feel it," Keisuke said. "When I woke up this morning, I felt, 'I have a match today, don't I?' After I arrived here, while I was warming up, I felt, 'Yeah, I have a match.'  I wasn't feeling nervous."

Otoguro, however, said he started feeling nerves about 10 days ago, mostly because of all the attention he was receiving from those around him. He said it darkened the mood.

"Ten days ago, everyone was saying, 'good luck' and 'we're counting on you,'" Otoguro said. "It subconsciously put pressure on me. At one point, I lost my desire. I was like, who cares about wrestling? But I took some time off, and remembered all I had accomplished since I was little. The hunger came back."

Japan Wrestling

Homebound for Now, Susaki Never Wavers from Revived Quest for Olympic Gold

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO -- Having seen her Olympic dream all but crushed, and then suddenly revived through a twist of fate over which she had no control, Yui SUSAKI (JPN) knows she must take advantage of whatever opportunities life throws her way. 

And if she has to wait another year to achieve her goal at the Tokyo Olympics, then she is going to look for the silver lining in the delay of her quest for gold. 

"This is the first time for me to be away from wrestling for so long," Susaki said in an interview by email. "I really want to wrestle again as soon as possible. Even so, there is also the plus side that I can use this time to do image training while watching videos, and put together a training regimen for the parts where I am weakest."

In what area Susaki, who will turn 21 on June 30, has a weakness, or if she has any at all, might be up for debate, but the two-time senior world champion in the women's 50kg class does not want any more missteps along the way. Like the majority of the sports world, Susaki has spent the past month training at home, preparing for the day when she can get back on the mat. 

There is a possibility that the National Training Center might be reopened following the lifting of the nationwide state of emergency by the Japanese government, but as of this writing, a definite date had not yet been decided. Susaki also cannot train at Waseda University, where she is a student and which has been closed since March. 

So, limited to keeping in shape at her home in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, Susaki said she goes through two workouts a day of about an hour each. She runs three to five kilometers and exercises or weight trains in a local park or at home. 

She does get a chance for some wrestling-oriented training. Her older sister Mai joins Yui to work on takedowns. Like their father Yasuhiro, Mai wrestled at Waseda, and once finished third at the Klippan Lady Open. "On the weekends when my sister is not working, we train together with takedown drills," Susaki said.

The family reunions are a welcome bonus as they deal with the societal effects of the crisis, which means an absence of contact with friends and teammates. For Susaki, it is the longest she has spent time with her family since she left home in the second year of junior high school to join the Japan Olympic Committee Elite Academy.

"To spend so much time with my whole family is really a fresh feeling and I'm really happy," Susaki said. "The time is so valuable. They look forward to seeing me perform on big stages like the Olympics and World Championships, and are with me through their support. This really hit me as we spend so much time together. My determination [for success] is also for my family."

Yui SUSAKI (JPN) starts each match off in her patented low-level stance. (Photo: Kadir Caliskan)

In between her training sessions, Susaki participates in online classes at Waseda, where she is enrolled in the Faculty of Sports Sciences, which includes among its professors two-time Olympic freestyle medalist Akira OTA (JPN). It was significant that Susaki opted to follow in the family footsteps and enroll in Waseda instead of going to wrestling powerhouse Shigakkan University. 

Shigakkan, previously known as Chukyo Women's University, has produced every Japanese Olympian in women's wrestling since it was added to the Olympic program at Athens 2004. That includes such luminaries as Saori YOSHIDA (JPN) and Kaori ICHO (JPN), and current stars Risako KAWAI (JPN) and Sara DOSHO (JPN), who will aim to defend the Olympic titles they won at Rio 2016. 

Under the assumption that the Tokyo Olympics will be held as rescheduled in summer 2021, Shigakkan's monopoly will end as world 76kg silver medalist Hiroe MINAGAWA (JPN), who competed collegiately at Ritsumeikan University, has already clinched her place on the Japan squad.

For Susaki to join her, she needs to first secure a place at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament, currently set for Xi'an, China, in March 2021. At the time that she won the 50kg title at the All-Japan Championships in December last year to earn the right to enter the qualifier, she had two months to prepare. Little did she or anyone else know that it would stretch to 15 months after first being moved out of China then postponed altogether. 

"It was very difficult to prepare myself for the competition under the circumstances where we didn't know if it would be held or not,"  Susaki said. "When it was postponed a year, I thought about the positive side, as it gives me another year to get stronger. From now, I will get stronger."

Yui SUSAKI (JPN) celebrates after defeating rival Yuki IRIE (JPN). (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

A 0.01 Percent Chance
That Susaki will be taking the mat in Xi'an, barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances, is a testament to the unpredictability of sports. 

Susaki's Olympic dream appeared to be shattered when she lost a playoff to nemesis Yuki IRIE (JPN) for a place on the team to the World Championships in Nur-Sultan last September. That held major significance, as an expected medal in the Kazakh capital would have clinched a place at the Tokyo Olympics for Irie, the only wrestler in the world who has beaten Susaki since elementary school. 

But Irie suffered a heartbreaking 13-12 loss in the quarterfinals to Rio 2016 bronze medalist SUN Yanan (CHN). Then, more significantly for Susaki and her fans around the globe, Sun was beaten by eventual champion Mariya STADNIK (AZE) in the semifinals--knocking Irie out of a place in the repechage and a chance for a bronze medal. 

Susaki had continued practicing, taking to heart her coach Shoko YOSHIMURA's words that "if there is still a 0.01 percent chance, you have to keep fighting."

"I had practice at the time, so I didn't see the match between Sun Yanan and Irie in real time," Susaki said. "I did see the match between Sun Yanan and Mariya Stadnik."

That unlocked the door to the Olympics, but to open it up, she first had to make it to the Asian qualifier. And to do that, she had to beat Irie--and Rio 2016 gold medalist Eri TOSAKA (JPN), for that matter--which she did with a razor-thin 2-1 victory in the final at the All-Japan, also known as the Emperor's Cup.

 "I went into the match against Irie at the Emperor's Cup regarding myself as the 'challenger'," Susaki said, adding that she told herself, "'This is your last chance. Definitely make this yours and get to the Tokyo Olympics.' That feeling was so strong. 

"When I lost in the playoff, I was confused and lost confidence in myself. But making use of that time, I was able to compete confidently at the Emperor's Cup, for all of the people who believed in me and supported me as well as myself."

Yui SUSAKI (JPN) celebrates with her coach after winning her second consecutive senior-level world title. (Photo: Gabor Martin)

Success Comes Early, Often
Her Olympic aspirations began burning not long after Susaki started wrestling as an elementary school first-grader at the local Matsudo Junior Wrestling School. By third grade, she had her first age-group national title and began dreaming of emulating Yoshida and win an Olympic gold.

The next year in 2009, she lost in the fourth-grade 26kg final to future world junior champion Saki IGARASHI (JPN)--Susaki would not lose again until 2015--but came back to take the national crowns in fifth grade and sixth grade. 

Success continued in junior high school, where she won both of the major national titles all three years and never tasted defeat. She also made her mark on the global stage, winning cadet titles at the Klippan Lady Open three years in a row, and the first of three consecutive world cadet golds. 

In her second year of junior high school, she was recruited to join the JOC Elite Academy under Yoshimura, a former five-time world champion who still mentors her today. 

Asked what sets Susaki apart from other top wrestlers, Yoshimura said, "The skill and physical strength to achieve a goal cannot be gained without having the will. Since she has a strong will and the energy, she can increase the amount of practice, effort, and training. She thinks of a methodology for applying various things to wrestling."

Moving on to high school, Susaki followed up her victory at the 2015 world cadet by making the final in her debut at the Emperor's Cup. In the gold-medal match, she was dealt the first of three career losses by Irie, who rolled to a 10-0 technical fall. That ended an 83-match winning streak dating back to her first year of junior high school and not including elementary school, although she came back the next year to win her first All-Japan title.

In 2017, she made the jump directly from cadet world champion to senior world champion, winning the 48kg gold in Paris, which made her the first high schooler to win a world title since Icho in 2002. That year began and ended in vastly different ways, as she won at the Yarygin Grand Prix in her senior debut, but lost to Irie in the Emperor's Cup semifinal, snapping a 63-match winning streak.

Entering Waseda in April 2018, she beat Irie at the All-Japan Invitational Championships, then again in a playoff to earn a ticket to that year's World Championships in Budapest, where she manhandled Stadnik in the 50kg final for her second straight gold. That victory came a little over a month after she added a world junior title to her collection.  

Yui SUSAKI (JPN) smiles after a win at the '19 Women's Wrestling World Cup. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

The Joy of Wrestling
In the video of her rout of Stadnik, the American commentator made this observation of Susaki: "She absolutely loves wrestling. When you see her wrestle, she smiles, she's really enjoying it, she's having fun, she's relaxed out there."

Asked if this was an accurate assessment, Susaki confirmed that it was. 

"Yes, it's accurate," she said. "I really love wrestling and always enjoy being in a match. It's fun for me when I get the most out of my abilities to win a gold medal at the World Championships or I defeat a powerful opponent. 

"I get nervous before a match, but I know the effort I made preparing for the match, and how hard I practiced for the purpose of winning. I go into the match in the spirit that, 'I know I am OK. Now just put everything into enjoying the match.'"

Susaki's fierce determination and bubbly personality has endeared her to fans both at home and abroad. Given the chance to address her international fans in this UWW story, Susaki wanted to convey her gratitude for their support, and encourage them to continue efforts to overcome the pandemic.

"I am very happy to all my fans around the world and am grateful from the bottom of my heart," she said. "They encourage me when I lose, and they share the joy when I win. Thanks to all of the fans, I have able to do my best. 

"Right now, the coronavirus has caused a serious crisis around the world. We can all pull together to get through this and look forward to the day when we can wrestle again and have matches again. I'm going to do everything I can to make progress and again give everyone a good show on the world stage."