Kaori Icho

Icho Cruises to Gold, Credits Love of Sport for Return

By Ken Marantz

MISHIMA, Japan (October 14)---Four-time Olympic champion Kaori ICHO cleared the first hurdle on the track to a possible fifth gold medal at Tokyo 2020. At this point, however, her sights are set on a more immediate goal.

Icho, returning to the mat for the first time since winning the gold at Rio 2016, had a few blips but otherwise was back to her dominant self in capturing the 57kg title at the All-Japan Women's Open on Sunday in Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture.

The 34-year-old Icho scored a 38-second technical fall in her opening match, then won both of her next two by falls to take the title in the second-tier tournament that serves as a qualifier for the national championships in December. 
Kaori ICHO (JPN) sits for questions during her post-tournament interview session after winning the All-Japan Women's Open (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

"The one thing I gained by entering this tournament and getting back into the sport was that I feel the joy of wrestling again," Icho said at a 30-minute post-tournament press conference. 

"I felt that many people were supporting me, so I wanted to do it again for them. They were telling me that it was most important to do it for myself, so I didn't want to let them down."

Two years and two months had passed since Icho defeated Valeria ZHOLOBOVA  (RUS) in the 58kg final at Rio. Much had since happened in Icho's life, both highs and lows---from the whirlwind of national accolades and attention that came with becoming the first female to win gold medals at four straight Olympics, to a dark four-month period when her charges of power harrassment against star coach Kazuhito SAKAE plunged the sport into scandal and led to his banishment.  

It also led Icho to ponder her future and look deep into herself, where she found her affection for the sport had not diminished. "In the end, the feeling of 'I want to do it' is what pushed me," she said.

"It was a struggle," Icho said. "It kept going back and forth between anguish and wanting [to wrestle] again. I asked myself, if your honest feeling is that you want to do it, wouldn't you be defeating yourself if there is a challenge you can make and you decide not to?"
Kaori ICHO (JPN) stares down her opponent during early action at the All-Japan Women's Open (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Icho started training in earnest in April under coach and Athens 2004 bronze medalist Chikara TANABE, practicing with the women's team at Nippon Sport Science University. Without going into details, Tanabe said the arrangement isn't perfect, and hopes that it can be improved as Icho prepares for stiffer competition.

"It was her first match in two years, and we needed to know how much her body has returned [to its former level]," Tanabe said. "It hasn't. From now, we have to create an ideal training environment. Then she will make progress."

Judging from her performance in Mishima, 100 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, she might not have that far to go. While Icho assessed herself at "about 60-70 percent" (while adding "I don't know what 100 percent is for me"), she never looked in a danger. The biggest surprise was a takedown she gave up in her semifinal match, but which she quickly offset with a reversal.
Kaori ICHO (JPN) showed flashes of brilliance in her first action back on the mats in two years (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

"As a whole, from the first match to the final, the three matches, my hips were too high, and I didn't move forward in attack," Icho said. "This is the biggest thing I need to reflect on. From now, I have to set up the moves and string together attacks."

With a large contingent of national media on hand, Icho began her comeback by overwhelming collegian Ayako SHIMANAKA. Icho scored a single-leg takedown 15 seconds into the match, locked onto an ankle hold and rolled her opponent four times for a lightning-quick 10-0 technical fall. 

She encountered stiffer competition in the semifinals against newly crowned world junior champion Hanako SAWA of Shigakkan University, which the now deposed Sakae built into a national powerhouse. 

Sawa boldly went on the attack and shocked Icho down with a double-leg tackle, only for Icho to immediately react and score a reversal with a switch. The first period ended 2-2 with Sawa fighting off a front headlock attack.

Kaori ICHO (JPN) worked her leg lace against 2018 Junior world champion Hanaka SAWA (JPN) (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

In the second period, Icho again secured a front headlock, using it to go behind for two points. Two rolls off an ankle lock made it 8-2. Icho then again got a front headlock, from which she locked up Sawa in a reverse cradle, rolled over and pinned her at 4:35. 

"I didn't think about who my opponent was," Sawa said. "Just doing what I can is what I always think about at a tournament."

The final pitted Icho against Fusano MOCHIZUKI, a winner at the Dave Schultz Memorial last November. After scoring a takedown on a counter to Mochizuki's single-leg attempt, and another on a go-behind off a front headlock, Icho launched a textbook-perfect double-leg in the final seconds of the first period for a 6-0 lead.

"At the end of the first period, I felt her speed, power and timing with that tackle," Mochizuki said. "She may have had a [two-year] blank, but it didn't seem like it."

Icho would finish up the win and her day with another counter in the second period. As Mochizuki came in on single-leg, they bumped heads and Icho stumbled back slightly. But she quickly recovered, pressed Mochizuki backward, then stepped over and locked her up for a fall at 3:34.

 "I thought it would get better as I went along, but it didn't happen," said Icho, who was named the tournament's most outstanding wrestler. "I still need more practice. Mentally, physically, if I don't become more confident, it will be difficult to be competitive at the All-Japan [Championships] or on the global level."

Medal stand following the 57kg finals at the All-Japan Women's Open (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

The top two finishers in the senior division of the tournament earned places in the All-Japan Championships, also known as the Emperor's Cup, which serves as the first of two qualifying tournaments for world championships, Olympics and other top competitions. 

A Japan federation official said that even if Icho had not entered the tournament in Mishima, she would have been proferred a special invitation to the Emperor's Cup in lieu of her amazing accomplishments. Still, he added, it was better that she entered.

For Icho, there was also a practical side. It was the first time she had been subjected to the new rule in which weigh-ins are held on the morning of the competition, instead of the previous day.

"Last night, all I had to eat was a rice ball," she said. "What do the night before, and what to eat after the weigh-in, it was a good experience. This was the first time. So I want to use what I learned to be better prepared for the All Japan."

With two months to go, the Emperor's Cup is foremost on Icho's mind, although the media cannot help but press her about going for an unprecedented fifth Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.  

Icho says she's focused on creating a better training environment to help her improve before the Emperor's Cup in December (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

"At this point, there's been so much going on that I'm not mentally prepared to think about [Tokyo]," she said. "Today I earned a place in the All-Japan, so I have to focus first on that. Right now, my training environment is not 100 percent. For the next two months, I have to create the right environment."

To help her prepare, Icho will be invited to a national training camp in November, which will give her a chance to see who has emerged as the competition in her absence. Speculation has already begun that fellow Rio 2016 champion Risako KAWAI, who won the gold at 63kg, might drop down to 57kg after making the Japan team to the upcoming world championships at 59kg. 

Golden day for world junior champion sisters

In addition to Sawa, two others from among Japan's six gold medalists at the world junior championships in Trnava in September were in action---and sisters Umi and Miyu IMAI both came away with titles.

Umi Imai, who attends Kaiyo High School in Kyoto, eschewed the high school division to take on the seniors, and swept aside four college opponents to capture the 53kg gold.

She capped the performance with victory by fall in 1:49 over Shigakkan's Katsura KONISHI. 

"I've been gradually facing the seniors at 53kg and it's giving me an idea of where I stand," Imai said.

Imai, who has worked out with the national senior team, will next see how she can fare at the Emperor's Cup in a weight class led by world champion Haruna OKUNO, but which should become more stacked as an Olympic division. 

"I don't think I'm on that level yet," Imai said. "When I sparred with Okuno, she never let me get close to her legs. I couldn't do my style of wrestling."

Older sister Miyu, who finished third at last year's Emperor's Cup, chalked up three wins to take the 65kg title, capped with a 10-0 technical fall in just over a minute in the final over Miki KAWAUCHI. 

Icho, Kaori Icho, Olympic champion, female wrestling

Kaori Icho: Pursuing Her Own Perfection

By Tim Foley

When Kaori Icho won her ninth world championship Thursday night in Tashkent absent were the backflips, tears and group hugs of previous champions. The Japanese wrestler fulfilled her requirement to wave the flag of her home country, but otherwise shooke hands, bowed off the mat and walked off the stage.

Icho’s unaffected reaction to winning a world title might be attributed to her three Olympic gold medals and eight previous world championships. All told, the Japanese great has won a total of 12 world titles, leaving her second all-time in female wrestling behind teammate Saori Yoshida who has 15 world titles on her resume. Those numbers make Icho and Yoshida inarguably the two greatest female wrestlers to ever walk the planet.

Despite the heady assertions and a 172-match winning streak, Icho is not interested in penning history or acquiring titles. She doesn’t want another gold medal for her bedroom or sponsorship money for her bank account.  What Icho wants and why she still wrestles can’t be counted or written down.

It has to be seen.


Kaori Icho headed into the 2008 Olympic Games a woman under pressure. She was the defending 2004 champion and hadn’t lost a match since 2003. The media burden in Japan was growing and she felt a growing dissatisfaction with the sport and all its offerings.

Icho’s solution was to discuss retirement. Warm and thoughtful, Icho knew that female wrestling was still in its infancy and she could step off the mat as a two-time Olympic champion at the age of 24. Icho was young enough to conquer something new, maybe a sport, maybe a job.

Her older sister, Chiharu, an eventual two-time Olympic silver medalist, would also be competing in the Beijing Games and had already announced her retirement – a declaration that gave Icho the opening she needed to slough off the stress and unwanted attention of her wrestling career, should she choose to follow her sister.

In addition to her sister, Icho was sharing her Olympic journey with teammate and friend Saori Yoshida, who’d also won an Olympic gold in 2004 and was mentored by her father and national team coach, Eikatsu Yoshida.

“I know that the gold medals mean a lot to Saori,” says Icho. “This is what motivates her and what motivates many wrestlers. I was like this, too, but it wasn’t right for me. Something wasn’t working.”

Icho floated the idea of retirement and, in a country cued into the plans of their most dominant Olympians, the rumors reached the press. “I never made the decision to retire, but I did need a change. I very much needed a change.”

Icho had been training at the same club near Nagoya for much of her life. When she finally took a moment to look up from the mats at age 24 she wanted change.

“I had the same training partners and the same coach,” explains Icho. “ Nothing was wrong with them, I just couldn’t get stronger without something new. If I was going to stay in wrestling I needed to find a new path.”

Of course, Icho would win in Beijing.  And, after her title was announced, she threw her arms in the air and beamed a smile. But that wasn’t from an appreciation of her achievement as much as an alleviation of the stress.

Icho sat out the 2008 World Championships – the model for other world meets for women run concurrently in Olympic years until 2016. Yoshida wrestled, and as she always seems to do, she won.

Icho chose not to retire, but she did decide to leave Japan. She hadn’t left wrestling, but she’d left Japan and moved to Canada.

“I wanted to experience life overseas and see how foreigners trained,” says Icho. “The biggest difference that I saw was how well the athletes and coaches communicated.”

In Japan the athlete-coach relationship is simple: coaches give instructions and wrestlers listen. In Canada, the coaches and the athletes had relationships; they enjoyed each other’s company on a personal level.

“I envied their relationships,” says Icho.

Icho traveled home to Japan, on occasion, but spent the majority of the next eight months training in Canada. She learned English, sat out the 2009 world championships and, in the time away from battling in competition, rediscovered what she loved about the sport -- and it wasn’t winning gold medals.

In addition to envying the close coach-athlete connection she saw in Canada, Icho saw that training methods varied from country to country. Sheltered and cared for in Nagoya, she’d never seen training that didn’t include running (which she dislikes) and was able to use more power lifts in her strength training (which she likes).

When Icho returned to Japan she chose to spend much of her time at the national training center for male wrestlers and looked for college programs and coaches she liked. She spent weeks absorbing new techniques, and also new attitudes – how one school trained varied from another, and from that she cobbled together a loose emotional and physical sketch of what it would take for her to get back on the mats for competition. Icho became more focused on the techniques and chess match of wrestling than on the aggression so often used as a skill. She discovered that passion could always be defeated by pressure or circumstance, but technical acumen was unbeatable, and its acquisition is, in and of itself, fulfilling.

That Icho is uniquely talented cannot be questioned. Her speed and athleticism are evident to even the most casual wrestling observer, but that she’s more spry, more active and more technical runs counterintuitive to the sport’s natural maturation. Thirty-something wrestlers slow down; they are more often injured and often eschew finer movements in favor of fewer movements.

Icho, who turns 30 in June, says that her ongoing improvements are a result of training with men who focus her on better techniques and tougher training regiments. With harder work in tougher scenarios, Icho believes her body will more often retain new techniques.

“Men are more profound in their detail and the moves are more complicated and that makes learning them a serious process.”

Icho refuses to put an expiration date on her career. If she were as poetic in her career path as she is on the mat she might decide to wrestle until the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Should she win every championship from now until then, she’d end her career with 18 world titles including five Olympic gold medals. But the titles have never mattered, and she won’t start creating storylines for herself.

“I’m not sure when the end will come for me, but I will be wrestling all my life,” says Icho. “I am a wrestler, but I will know when my time as competitor must give way to my time as a coach.”

For now, Icho wrestles one match at a time. Always wondering if she can achieve perfection in her lifetime, knowing that her own expectations become loftier with each technique mastered.

“My goal, my only goal, is to get to closer to the image in my head of what wrestling can be,” says Icho. “Competition is important and it will enrich your life.”

”I’m only now seeing that improvement is what gives me satisfaction and puts a smile on my face."