LONDON – Once the undisputed queen of the mat, Saori Yoshida now faces her biggest challenge ever as she bids to win her third consecutive title in the women’s 55-kg wrestling competition at the London Olympics.
Though still ascendant, the nine-time world champion has had her spirit broken on more than a few occasions in recent years, and her rivals are doggedly pursuing ways to end her reign for good.
The 29-year-old Yoshida has desperately been trying to rediscover the speedy tackling maneuvers her opponents once feared her for since winning her first world title in 2002.
Overall, Japan’s women look to clean up again with the likes of world champions Hitomi Obara (48 kg) and Kaori Icho (63 kg) when the competition gets under way on Aug. 7-8, and even the men could pull off some surprises in the lighter weight categories.
Undoubtedly the favorite to win an unprecedented third straight gold, Yoshida had a close call en route to winning her ninth consecutive title at the worlds in Istanbul last September, when she narrowly defeated Canadian Tonya Verbeek 2-1 in the final after dropping the second period.
She was later stunned in her loss at the women’s World Cup to Russia’s Valeria Zholobova in May this year that ended a 58-match winning streak — her first defeat in four years.
Her coach, Kazuhito Sakae, believes the key to reversing Yoshida’s tendency to lose her way against opponents who have been studying her moves, is to speed up her tackles — her trademark style from earlier years where she practically springs at opponents from distances up to 1 meter.
“As long as I can keep my feet moving, and wrestle in my style, I won’t lose,” said Yoshida.
Yoshida, who is the flag-bearer for her country in London, knows she will be put to possibly her toughest test, but thinks all of her training will pay off in the end.
“I could feel the weight of the Olympics in the flag. I feel now even more determined than ever to win the gold medal,” she said at the Opening Ceremony.
The 31-year-old Obara, a two-time world champion at 48 kg, will be the favorite in her Olympic debut, and Icho will attempt the same three-peat as Yoshida in the heavier weight class.
Icho, who has recovered from lower-back pain sustained during a training camp in June, appears unstoppable while five-time world champion Kyoko Hamaguchi (72 kg) will look to overcome her demons by improving on bronze-medal finishes at the Athens and Beijing Games.