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."

Japan Wrestling

With Decision to Make, Japan's Women With Olympic Berths All Intend to Enter Belgrade Worlds

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO---Given a difficult choice, all five Japanese women who have already secured berths at the Tokyo Olympics would choose to take on the world prior to the 202One Games.

By a twist of fate, the dates for this year's rescheduled World Championships (Dec. 12-20) in Belgrade perfectly overlapped with the traditional slot on the calendar for the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships (Dec. 17-20).

The Japan federation, trying to set a course in the turbulent seas caused by the coronavirus pandemic, would give the wrestlers the option of choosing which competition they would like to appear.

Sara DOSHO_S20E2958.jpg Olympic champion Sara DOSHO (JPN) finishes a shot during the women's team training camp (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

On Wednesday, the opening day of a national women's team training camp at the Ajinomoto National Training Center in Tokyo, defending Olympic champions Risako KAWAI and Sara DOSHO and the three others all said they would decide or are leaning toward appearing at the World Championships.

"I want to take part," said Kawai, who won her third straight world title in September 2019 in Nur-Sultan by winning the gold at 57kg. "I realize the danger with the coronavirus, but thinking about the Olympics, I haven't been in an international tournament since February, so I want to [be in one] once before the Olympics."

This is all contingent, of course, on the World Championships being held in the first place. United World Wrestling is expected to make the final call in early November, a decision that took an additional twist with the recent announcement that the United States will not be sending a team.

For the Japanese wrestlers, it goes even beyond that. The Japanese government currently requires citizens returning from a trip abroad to self-isolate for 14 days. The restriction is about to be relaxed in some cases for business travelers, both Japanese and foreigners, but it is unlikely to apply to the athletes.

"At Narita, they would have to stay at a hotel," said Shigeki NISHIGUCHI, the technical director of the Japan Wrestling Federation, referring to the international airport that services Tokyo. "Or maybe they would wait it out at home. They wouldn't be able to practice."

Nishiguchi said all could be rectified if the government would allow the wrestlers to quarantine at the National Training Center. As a self-contained facility that already operates as an anti-virus bubble, the wrestlers could stay and train as if they were at an extended training camp.

"At the moment, that doesn't look possible," he said. "We're not sure the government will allow it."

The wrestlers themselves are concerned only with what they can control. Normally, the year-ending Emperor's Cup would be the first of two qualifying tournaments for the team to the following year's World Championships. But with all tournaments wiped out by the pandemic, the members of the 2019 team in Nur-Sultan would have the first choice of going to Belgrade.

In Nur-Sultan, Japanese women grabbed Olympic spots in five of the six weight classes, winning one gold, two silvers and one bronze, with one fifth-place finish. The only weight class in which Japan still needs to qualify is 50kg, and two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI will try to make the cut at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in Xi'an, China, on March 26-28.

Susaki was among a number of collegians who were absent from the training camp that started Wednesday due to school commitments. As Susaki's situation is different from the confirmed Olympians, her coach, Shoko YOSHIMURA, said she is undecided which tournament she would enter.

"She hasn't decided," Yoshimura said. "She's not at a stage yet where she knows all of the conditions. When those are decided, we'll talk about it and make a decision."

Mayu MUKAIDA_S20E2937.jpg Mayu MUKAIDA (JPN) finishes a double leg takedown. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

For Mayu MUKAIDA, the 2019 world silver medalist at 53kg, there is no debate.

"I'm planning to enter the worlds," Mukaida said. "There was nothing to think about, I'm preparing for the worlds."

Mukaida would have some unfinished business to attend to in Belgrade. She is still stinging from the one-sided loss she was dealt in the final in Nur-Sultan by PAK Yong-Mi (PRK). "I don't know if the North Korean will enter or not, but I'll do what I can to win the gold medal and keep that momentum going up to the Olympics."

Dosho, the Rio Olympic champion and 2017 world champion at 69kg, says she would lean toward entering the World Championships. She finished fifth in Nur-Sultan at 68kg after coming back from a layoff due to shoulder surgery.

In Nur-Sultan, Dosho lost in the third round to eventual champion Tamyra MENSAH-STOCK (USA), but isn't concerned about missing out on a chance to face her again before the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed to July 2021.

"If I can face her, it's OK, if I don't, then I'll focus on preparing to be ready at that level for the Olympics," said Dosho, who recently has recovered from a knee injury. "I don't have any big injury, but I have some small issues here and there. I'm keeping in mind avoiding injury as I train."

Huroe MINAGAWA_S20E3019.jpg Hiroe MINAGAWA (JPN) tightens her grip on a head lock. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Another Japanese wrestler who might benefit from the absence of an American presence in Belgrade is Hiroe MINAGAWA, the world silver medalist at 76kg.

"In my weight class, the American is ranked No. 1 and is the world champion," said Minagawa, referring to Adeline GRAY (USA), who beat her in the final in Nur-Sultan. "It's a shame that she won't be entered. But there are many other strong wrestlers besides her, so it's not so much of a shock that she won't be there, and it means I'll be able to face ones from other countries."

It 's that much-needed exposure to foreign competition that compels Minagawa, who underwent knee surgery in the spring while sports where shut down,  to opt to participate in the World Championships over the Emperor's Cup.

"In my case, I want to use the World Championships to come up with measures to take on wrestlers from other countries who have more power, and get back the match feeling after such a long layoff," she said. "There is still [the issue of] my knee. Naturally, the Olympics is the No. 1 [priority]. I have to think how to be in peak condition for the Olympics."

Not surprisingly, Yukako KAWAI, the world bronze medalist at 62kg, would commit to joining older sister Risako on the flight to Belgrade as the two look to win Olympic gold medals together next year on home soil.

"If there is a World Championships, I will enter that," Kawai said. "There is no anguishing over it."

She  would naturally aim for a gold in Belgrade, but more as a means to an end. "What I want most is the Olympic gold. Of course I will aim for the title at the World Championships, but more than definitely wanting that, I want to have matches that allow me to find out what I need to work on ahead of the Olympics."

Chances are good that the All-Japan Championships will be held as scheduled. Earlier this month, Japan successfully held its first national-level tournament with the National High School Invitational Championships, which was soon followed by the National Collegiate Greco-Roman Championships.

As a footnote to the high school tournament, the Japan federation and the wrestling division of the All Japan High School Athletic Federation recently announced that, after waiting with bated breath in the two weeks following the end of the competition, there were no reported cases of coronavirus infection among the wrestlers, coaches, officials and staff---about 800 people in all.