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Yoshida second Japanese wrestler to 3-peat in London Olympics

Kyodo

Saori Yoshida became the second Japanese wrestler in as many days to achieve a three-peat when she won her third consecutive Olympic gold in the women’s 55 kilograms at the London Games on Thursday.

The 29-year-old Yoshida overpowered longtime rival Tonya Verbeek of Canada in the final, giving her a third gold medal after winning titles at the inaugural tournament in Athens in 2004 and the 2008 Beijing Games.

Yoshida’s victory brought Japan’s gold medal count to five — its third in two days. Countrywoman Kaori Icho became the first female wrestler to accomplish the feat after claiming her third straight Olympic title at 63 kg on Wednesday.

Yoshida joined a pantheon of greats, matching the achievement of Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin, who also had three straight Olympic titles and won nine consecutive world championships in the men’s heaviest class of 130 kg.

With “Alexander the Great” looking on from the stands, the 157-centimeter Japanese dynamo waxed brilliantly to tie the Russian for 12 world and Olympic titles, an all-time best long considered an unbreakable mark.

Yoshida, who began wrestling at the age of three, was impregnable against the 34-year-old Verbeek, burning the Beijing Olympic bronze medalist with her trademark high-speed leg tackle to take the first period after waiting for just the right opening to lunge forward.

She had Verbeek on the back pedal in the second period, as well, grabbing her opponent’s leg again for a fierce shove out. It was a totally different scene from the 2011 worlds, where Yoshida had to battle back from a period down to beat Verbeek in the final.

After the final buzzer, Yoshida pumped her fist in the air and did a flip for the cheering crowd before lofting her father and coach Eikatsu onto her shoulders while flashing the Hinomaru flag.

“A lot has happened since Beijing, but I feel that I’ve definitely gotten stronger,” said Yoshida. “I am happy that I could end in this great way on this spectacular world stage. I felt the fans from Japan who couldn’t be here rooting me on. I knew I couldn’t lose. I was determined to fight.”

In the semifinals, Yoshida got revenge against 19-year-old Russian Valeriia Zholobova, who ended Yoshida’s 58-match winning streak at the women’s World Cup in Tokyo in May.

She routed the Russian teen in two periods, pumping her fist after avenging the defeat that was her first in four years, and never conceded a point all day.

“I am glad that I could get my revenge on her,” said Yoshida about defeating Zholobova. “I still had the final left to fight, but I never lost my focus until the end.”

Yuliya Ratkevich of Azerbaijan, who Yoshida beat in her second match of the day, won a bronze along with Jackeline Renteria Castillo of Colombia.

Earlier, Kyoko Hamaguchi saw what was her third and likely final attempt at an Olympic gold medal end in disaster as she went crashing out in her first 72-kg match against Athens Olympic silver medalist Guzel Manyurova of Kazakhstan.

“I was given a rude awakening here at the London Olympics in this 72-kg weight class,” said Hamaguchi. “I thought that I might be able to win, and I gave all my power. I’ll discuss the matter with myself, but I still don’t want to remove my wrestling shoes,” she said.

Russia’s Natalia Vorobieva won the gold-medal match against Stanka Zlateva Hristova of Bulgaria. Manyurova won a bronze, as did Spain’s Maider Unda.