Japan Wrestling

Japan Freestyle Squad Gets Together for 1st National Team Camp in Six Months

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO -- Save for a short period when his university was completely shut down, former world champion Takuto OTOGURO has been able to keep up a regular practice routine during the global pandemic.

But finally getting to work out with his fellow national team members takes it to another level. It gets the juices flowing, and raises hopes that the day the wrestling world gets back on the mat for competition won't be far off.

"To be here with the national team gathered together makes me feel grateful again," Otoguro said. "I feel motivated looking toward the Olympics."

The Japan national freestyle team started its first training camp in six months on Oct. 1 at the Ajinomoto National Training Center in Tokyo, with 17  of the nation's best converging for the eight-day conclave being held under strict health protocols.

In principle, the top two placewinners at last year's national championships were invited -- a few were excused due to university or company commitments -- as Japan begins preparation for the tentatively scheduled World Championships in December, Asian Championships in February and the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in March. Whether any or all of the tournaments will be held is still just speculation.

The freestylers, who last got together in March this year, had been scheduled to have a camp in mid-July, following the women and Greco-Roman squads. While the latter two had their camps, freestyle was left in the lurch when a sudden surge of coronavirus cases in Tokyo caused the Japan federation to cancel.

Takuto OTOGURO ties up former Olympic medalist and national team coach Shinichi YUMOTO. (photo by Sachiko Hotaka/JWF)

"So many times we make a schedule and it's canceled, make a schedule and it's canceled," said freestyle head coach Kenji INOUE. "Under these circumstances, it could not be helped."

Scheduling a national team camp is no easy matter. Wrestlers are scattered around the country, and must be released by their university or club teams. Also, the federation needs to get the green light from its medical commission.

"Even if we [in the federation] want to hold this, we cannot do it without the support and cooperation of many people," Inoue said. "And then when we have to cancel after all the planning, all we can do it apologize to them. This time, along with being grateful for their cooperation, we can repay them by having a camp without incident."

Rei HIGUCHI squares off with former Olympic gold medalist and national team coach Tatsuhiro YONEMITSU. (photo by Sachiko Hotaka/JWF)

Following strict protocols

As with the camps held in July, the freestylers face strict regulations over their movements in the "bubble" of the NTC complex. There are limits on how many can be in the weight room at any one time. In the dining room, they are urged to sit diagonally across from each other, not face to face. Contact with the outside world is limited to an occasional run to the local convenience store.

Upon entering the wrestling room, they have their temperature taken, and sanitize not only their hands, but the bottom of their wrestling shoes. Each wrestler has taken a PCR test for the coronavirus; all came up negative.

"The teams did what they could and each individual did what he could," Inoue said. "I don't know if other countries did the same, but there's no anxiety on our part."

Otoguro has been somewhat fortunate in that Yamanashi Prefecture, where he attends Yamanashi Gakuin University, has been largely spared the brunt of the pandemic. Through Oct. 3, the prefecture west of Tokyo had just 194 cases and six deaths, compared to Tokyo with 26,376 and 411, respectively. As a whole, Japan has had about 1,600 deaths.

Otoguro and older brother Keisuke are the only Japanese in freestyle who have secured berths at the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed a year to 2021. Takuto, the 2018 world gold medalist, earned his place at 65kg by finishing fifth at last year's World Championships, while Keisuke filled the 74kg spot by winning a domestic playoff, having moved up from 70kg.

Keisuke Otoguro had a slightly better situation coming into camp as he is a member of the Self-Defense Force Physical Training School team, which offers a high level of competition and ordinarily operates within a bubble of its own.

For inspiration, he has to look no farther than the team coaches, three of whom have won Olympic medals. Not only that, but Inoue (bronze, Athens 2004), Tatsuhiro YONEMITSU (gold, London 2012) and Shinichi YUMOTO (bronze, London 2012) are also on the national team staff.

"I am learning from wrestlers with the great experience of having won Olympic medals," Otoguro said. "I think that can be a big advantage for me."

His brother and Rei HIGUCHI, the Rio 2016 silver medalist at 57kg who will try to earn a spot in Tokyo in that weight class at the Asian qualifier, both got to see first hand how the coaches have not lost much since their active days.

Takuto Otoguro had the weight advantage in sparring with Yumoto, who wrestled at 55kg in his prime. But Higuchi faced the opposite situation in squaring off with Yonemitsu, who certainly looks like he would quickly get up to speed if he ever decided to return to competition.

"I have so much I can learn," Higuchi said of facing the muscular Yonemitsu, who has added bulk to the frame that triumphed in London at 66kg. "Naturally, there is a bit of a size difference. I need to overcome that. I'm the type that hates to lose, so it was very tough to take. I don't consider that the situation is hopeless."

Still, he is grateful for being back on the national team, as it gives him the chance for such encounters.

"If I'm not here, I don't have a chance [to wrestle] with Yonemitsu or Yumoto. It's fun, but it's also frustrating. This week, I'll do what I can to beat them."

Keisuke OTOGURO works on a takedown. (photo by Sachiko Hotaka/JWF)

Tough decision ahead

Higuchi had originally tried to make the Olympic team at 65kg, but couldn't get past Otoguro. He then dropped down two weight classes to 57kg to challenge former world champion Yuki TAKAHASHI, and defeated him in the final of the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships last December to earn a ticket to the Asian Olympic qualifier.

He hit a bump in the road when a cluster of infections broke out among the wrestlers at Nippon Sport Science University, his alma mater where he continues to train and serves as a graduate assistant. While it was not revealed whether Higuchi was among those infected, he said he made the best of the situation.

"Because of the coronavirus, the amount of practice was reduced," Higuchi said. "I went back home and had a lot of time off. I felt refreshed with a renewed sense of commitment. So it wasn't so bad."

Veteran Sosuke TAKATANI, a two-time Olympian and 2014 world silver medalist at 74kg who will try to make the Tokyo Games at 86kg, also had his training curtailed. But he is unperturbed about the long span between national team camps, which also saw the cancelation of all competition.

"I don't feel concerned at all," Takatani said. "Everyone in the country has to overcome this crisis. It's not a matter of, they did this or we couldn't do that. I'll just do what I can to get ready for the next competion."

What that competition will be is still up in the air, but even in the best-case scenario, Japan's top wrestlers will be forced to make a difficult decision.

The World Championships, normally held in September, have been scheduled for Dec. 12-20 in Belgrade. But that directly overlaps with the All-Japan Championships, which are slated for Dec. 17-20.

Normally, the team for the World Championships would be decided based on the results from the Emperor's Cup in December and the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in May or June. But the latter was canceled this year, and a Japan federation official said the winners at the Emperor's Cup will be given preference for places on the team to Belgrade. Some, however, may opt to stay in Japan for the Emperor's Cup, which will be their prerogative.

Takatani did not hesitate in saying he will opt for Belgrade. "My goal is to be No. 1 in the world, so if I'm given the chance, I want to definitely win the gold medal," he said, even though missing the Emperor's Cup would end his streak of nine consecutive national titles.

Both Takuto Otoguro and Higuchi said they are undecided at this point.

"I have to talk to my coach, I don't know now," said Otoguro, whose most recent competition was a gold-medal run at the Asian Championships in New Dehli in February.  "Tokyo is the goal, that's the standard. Whatever tournament I enter before then, I'll aim to win the title."

Higuchi is playing it by ear as well, leaving it undecided at the moment but assuring he will be on the mat for one of them.

"It will depend on the timing of how I feel in terms of getting back my match sense," he said.

The women and Greco-Roman national teams will hold camps from Oct. 20 and 21, respectively.

#NFRoundup

NF Roundup Blog, Nov. 30 - Dec. 4

By United World Wrestling Press

By Vinay Siwach

India have witnessed many celebrity weddings in the last couple of years. Bollywood movie 'Dangal' fame wrestlers Geeta Phogat and Babita Phogat married fellow wrestlers. So did their cousin and India's most successful female wrestler Vinesh Phogat.

Now, India's three-time World Championship medalist Bajrang Punia has tied the nuptial knot on November 25 in a restricted ceremony in northern state of Haryana.

Incidentally, he married youngest sister of Phogat family Sangeeta, a Asian Championship bronze medalist from 2018. The two were in a relationship for the last three years.

The wedding was held in traditional north-Indian manner with festivities going on for four days. Punia hosted the function at his home in Sonipat district of Haryana while Phogat was in Balali village, Charkhi Dadri district, of the same state.

The 65kg wrestler, who has decided to skip the Individual World Cup in Belgrade, Serbia next month, will travel to the United States for a training camp at Cliff Keen Wrestling Club in Michigan. He will also wrestle at the FloWrestling's 8-man challenge on December 18. Punia has already qualified the weight category for the Tokyo Olympics.

Phogat, who has been out of action for the last couple of years, is gearing up for return next year with the Asian Championship next year in February in the Olympic weight category of 62kg. India are yet to qualify the weight for the Olympics. This presents her the opportunity to win the national trials and compete at the Asian Olympic qualifiers scheduled to be held in Xi'an, China in March, 2021.

Yuka Kagami (Toyo Univ.), Who has high expectations for post Minagawa, won the first title after going on to school.

by Ken Marantz

Miwa MORIKAWA and Yuka KAGAMI, two of Japan's top future women prospects in the upper weights with an impressive list of world age-group titles, returned to competition from long pandemic-induced layoffs by winning titles at the East Japan Collegiate Championships.

Both only needed one victory to secure gold medals in the tournament held at Tokyo's Komazawa Gym on Nov. 24, which they entered as a warmup for the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships next month.

Nippon Sport Science University's Morikawa, who came close to snatching Japan's 68kg spot at the Tokyo Olympics from Rio 2016 champion Sara DOSHO, needed just 38 seconds to overwhelm Kokushikan University's Chinae MUTO by 10-0 technical fall at 65kg.

"It had been this long since my last match in the playoff, but I wanted to get some action in before the Emperor's Cup," Morikawa said. "I was glad to be have a solid match."

Kagami, making her delayed collegiate debut as a Toyo University freshman, scored five takedowns in topping Daito Bunka's Mizuki NAGASHIMA by 12-2 technical fall in the 76kg final.

Kagami finished the match with a gut-wrench roll, but rued her lack of points from the top position against the bigger opponent. "I don't feel like [she] was heavy. This time, I was a bit nervous and didn't move well."

Morikawa, the 2019 world junior champion at 65kg, had moved up to 68kg last year in attempt to depose Dosho, who had earned the Olympic spot for Japan by finishing fifth at the World Championships in Nur-Sultan.

Morikawa came close. She shocked Dosho at last year's All-Japan Championships by thrashing her 9-2 in the semifinals, then went on to win the title with a 2-1 win over Naruyo MATSUYUKI in the final.

That set up a playoff on March 8 for the 68kg berth between Morikawa and Dosho, which Morikawa was unable to repeat her victory and Dosho came out with a 3-1 win.

That would prove to be Morikawa's last live action before the East Japan tournament, where she captured a third straight title.

"Up to now, I was always at 65kg as a junior," Morikawa said. "[Last year], as 68kg is an Olympic weight, Coach [Chikara] TANABE pushed me to make the challenge at the All Japan, so I moved up. Going back to my regular weight class, I came out with the win and want to ride that to the All Japan."

Kagami, the world junior and U23 champion last year at 72kg and 76kg, respectively, looks to have made a permanent move to the heavier weight class as she sets her sights on the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Kagami is a product of the JOC Elite Academy, and has supplemented her training by working out with the group at its National Training Center base. She joins in morning practice, then either trains at Toyo--where she often spars with the lightweight men--or returns in the afternoon for a second session.

"Since I started college, the amount of practice time is less," said Kagami, a former two-time world cadet champion who also won the senior Asian gold last year. "I tried to think of ways to make up for it. I arranged with the Academy to let me join practice there, so I was able to train as usual."

In fact, Kagami said the main reason she chose Toyo, as opposed to powerhouse Shigakkan or another strong wrestling school, was because of its proximity to the NTC---just a 3km bicycle ride away.

"The main reason I chose Toyo is because it's somewhat close to the Academy," said Kagami, who is studying media communications. "When I got to college, I thought I might tend to relax. But with the Academy close, I knew I wouldn't let up, so I chose it."

Living in the college dormitory, Kagami likes her new freedom. But she also keeps her feet on the ground when it comes to her commitment to wrestling.

"There is a fun side to it," she said in regard to college life. "But I know I have to keep in mind that if I don't do what I need to do, I will decline [physically]. It's a little hard to resist temptation."

In other finals, 2018 world cadet champion Sakura MOTOKI of Ikuei University scored a decisive 6-1 victory over world U23 champion Yumeka TANABE of NSSU for the 59kg gold.

At 62kg, 2018 world junior champion Atena KODAMA of Waseda University won her second straight title, but it didn't come easy. She needed two takedowns in the final 20 seconds to beat NSSU's Rin MIYAGI 6-5 in the semifinals, then secured a second-period takedown for a 3-2 win in the final over NSSU's Mahiro YOSHITAKE.