RIO DE JANEIRO – Saori Yoshida saw her bid to win a fourth straight Olympic wrestling gold medal crumble before her eyes after a seismic loss to American Helen Maroulis at the Rio Games on Thursday.
But Risako Kawai lifted the mood when she won the women’s 63-kg freestyle competition later in the evening, taking Japan’s tally of wrestling golds so far at Rio 2016 to four.
Yoshida was aiming to follow in teammate Kaori Icho’s footsteps by becoming only the second female athlete in any sport to win individual gold medals at four successive Olympics.
But the 33-year-old met her match against Olympic debutant Maroulis in the women’s 53-kg freestyle final, falling prey to two takedowns to lose the match 3-1 at Carioca Arena 2.
“I really wanted to win the gold medal and show it to everyone who has supported me, and I really have to apologize to them that I couldn’t do it,” said Yoshida, who broke down in floods of tears at the end of the match and was still inconsolable almost an hour later.
“A lot of things have happened over the past four years but I never thought about retiring and looked forward to competing in Rio. I wanted to win my fourth title no matter what, and I gave it everything I had to get here. So it’s pathetic that right at the end I wasn’t able to find it in me to win.”
Yoshida, a 13-time world champion and one of Japan’s most iconic Olympians, refused to be drawn on whether she would compete at the Tokyo Games in 2020, dwelling instead on the end of her incredible period of dominance.
“I’ve been wrestling for 30 years and it has shaped my life,” said Yoshida. “Wrestling has allowed me to compete at four Olympic Games, meet so many great people and learn so much. I’m so grateful for all it has given me.”
Maroulis’ victory gave the United States its first-ever women’s wrestling gold medal, and the 24-year-old was quick to pay tribute to her beaten opponent.
“I think Saori Yoshida is a great athlete,” said Maroulis. “She has three gold medals and multiple world titles so I knew that wrestling her was going to be a very big task, and I just wanted to do my best and give my all.
“Anyone can win it. That’s what I told myself, and I just didn’t want to look at Goliath and get scared. I just wanted to take a step back and say ‘I believe I have what it takes.'”
Kawai rescued Japan’s evening when she dominated Maryia Mamashuk of Belarus in the 63-kg final.
Kawai, making her Olympic debut at the age of 21, refused to let the shock waves from Yoshida’s defeat affect her and led from start to finish on the way to a 3-0 victory.
“First of all I was surprised,” the Ishikawa Prefecture native said of Yoshida’s defeat. “Just before my final, I found out that something had happened although I didn’t know what. But I didn’t let that shake my determination to win the gold medal, and I got over it quickly.
“My coach told me to keep a cool head and be daring, and I always had it in my mind to attack.”
Kawai celebrated by slamming team leader Kazuhito Sakae to the mat twice.
“Before the final, the coach said he wanted me to lift him on his shoulders,” said Kawai. “The three wrestlers the previous day all won gold so they got to do that, and I said I wanted to be first to slam him and he let me do it.”
But Sakae was left with mixed emotions after watching Yoshida’s long Olympic reign come to an end.
“It’s frustrating to see Yoshida lose,” said the coach. “But when you consider that she was going for her fourth Olympic gold medal, and the way she responds to expectations and the way she carries herself, she deserves even more than gold.”