Olympics / Summer Olympics / Wrestling

Icho leads Japan's wrestling sweep with historic fourth straight gold

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Kaori Icho won a historic fourth straight gold medal and Japan claimed a clean sweep on the wrestling mat as Eri Tosaka and Sara Dosho also topped the podium at the Rio Olympics on Wednesday.

Icho became the first woman to capture individual gold medals at four consecutive Olympics in any sport when she beat Koblova Zholobova of Russia to win the women’s 58-kg freestyle competition, and the first wrestler ever to win four titles at the Summer Games.

“I’m relieved,” said Icho, who came within seconds of losing only to pull off a dramatic victory. “I’m sorry and frustrated that I couldn’t produce a better performance because that was pretty bad.

“Winning the gold medal at the end wasn’t down to me — it was down to everyone who has supported me along the way.”

The 32-year-old Icho, who suffered her first defeat in 13 years in January when she lost at a meet in Russia, looked to be heading to a shock silver medal when Zholobova took a narrow lead into the final few seconds.

But Icho’s frantic late attempt to pull the iron out of the fire paid off when she countered her opponent to win 3-1 on points, giving her a gold medal from each Olympics since women’s wrestling was added to the Games in 2004.

“I knew it was my last chance,” said Icho, who dedicated the win to her late mother, who passed away last year. “I knew that if I missed, I was going to lose.

“I really miss my mum and I know that she was looking down on me today. I think she helped me get those points at the end of the match.

“I didn’t feel under any pressure to win four in a row, but I think this was the first Olympics where I felt fear competing. My mum isn’t here and there are a lot of other things, but I think I won this medal through desire.”

Icho became only the fourth Olympian ever to win individual gold medals at four consecutive games after Al Oerter (discus), Carl Lewis (long jump) and swimmer Michael Phelps (200-meter individual medley).

Icho took to the mat after watching Tosaka beat Mariya Stadnik of Azerbaijan 3-1 in the women’s 48-kg freestyle final to win gold in almost identical circumstances.

Tosaka trailed with the clock ticking toward zero, but landed a tackle on her opponent with only five seconds remaining to give Japan its first success of the day.

“I didn’t think I would give up a point so early and I was panicking a little during the match,” said the 22-year-old Tosaka. “I didn’t know what to do.

“My coach gave me some good advice, and that really calmed me down. I knew if I could get a point, I could turn it around. But it was difficult. I don’t really remember the match itself. I was determined to grab her leg but I can’t actually remember doing it.”

Dosho also had to come from behind to beat Russia’s Natalia Vorobeva 3-1 and complete Japan’s clean sweep in the women’s 69-kg freestyle final.

Dosho found herself behind with around 30 seconds of the match remaining against the London Olympic gold medalist, but the 21-year-old landed a tackle to take the match and give Japan its first-ever winner in the 69-kg division.

“Now I know what it feels like to win an Olympic gold medal,” said Dosho, who won Japan’s 10th gold medal of the Rio Games. “It’s big and it’s heavy.

“I knew that I still had a chance so long as I didn’t fall too far behind, so I’m glad I never gave up and kept attacking until the end. I won the Olympic gold medal with a tackle, so I’m grateful to my coach for teaching me.”

Japan wrestling team leader Kazuhito Sakae immediately set his sights on more gold when Saori Yoshida attempts to emulate Icho’s achievement with a fourth straight Olympic gold in Thursday’s 53-kg competition.

“If we don’t win anything tomorrow, I won’t be able to celebrate,” said Sakae. “I want more gold tomorrow.

“At last year’s world championships, we only got three gold medals and the men did nothing, and afterward there was talk of me stepping down. I would have thought about it if we hadn’t done well in Rio, but the fact that young wrestlers have done so well here today is great news looking ahead to the Tokyo Olympics.”

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