Four-time Olympic champion Kaori Icho took a step toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on Sunday, winning her rematch against fellow Rio Olympic champion Risako Kawai at the national wrestling championships.
Icho, who declared for the first time on Saturday that she would attempt to compete at the next Olympics, was beaten by Kawai in their women’s 57-kilogram group-stage bout. Kawai had won the 63-kg title in Rio, where Icho won the 58-kg division.
Trailing 2-1 in the final period, the 34-year-old Icho found a bit of her old speed to turn the tables on her 24-year-old opponent to earn a 3-2 victory.
“I felt a kind of nervous tension like I hadn’t in a long time,” Icho said. “But I was advised to wrestle so all these fans in this great crowd would have something to enjoy. I was able to relax and perform.”
“I think I still have room to grow, to improve, and now I want to take stock of the issues that arose with my performance today and make use of those lessons moving forward.”
Icho was competing in the nationals for the first time in three years. She returned to competition in October after taking a break while a harassment scandal involving a national team coach put her in an unwanted spotlight.
Her loss to Kawai on Saturday had been Icho’s first to a Japanese opponent in 17 years.
Although Kawai looked in shock after losing in the final seconds, she congratulated the victor with a handshake after the medal ceremony.
“This world is all about results,” Kawai said. “But if I can’t be the best (in Japan), I won’t be going to the Olympics.”
The nationals are serving as a qualifier for next autumn’s world championship, which in turn will be used to decide Olympic berths.
In other results, 59-kg Greco-Roman world champion Kenichiro Fumita defeated Olympic silver medalist Shinobu Ota 7-2 to win his second 59-kg national title following his 2016 championship.
Women’s 55-kg world champion Mayu Mukaida won the 53-kg division. Yuki Irie won her second straight championship in the 50-kg division.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5