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Saori Yoshida retires with head held high

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Wrestling legend Saori Yoshida is recognized as a remarkable winner for what she accomplished on the mat.

Even though she claimed a silver medal at her final marquee competition, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, that won’t change. After all, she followed her father’s words instead of chasing another Olympic dream and made a difficult decision.

Two days after her retirement announcement, the legend appeared in public and once again spoke about her intention of stepping off the mat at a Tokyo news conference on Thursday.

The 36-year-old, who announced she’s retiring on Twitter on Tuesday, said that she was torn between retirement and vying to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But ultimately, she decided to call it quits as one of the best as her late father and childhood coach, Eikatsu, had told her to do.

“After the Rio Olympics was over, I knew there would be the Tokyo Olympics and I had an idea of wanting to compete in it in a corner of my head,” said Yoshida, who won three straight women’s 55-kg division gold medals starting at the 2004 Athens Games. “But I ended up with a silver medal, and my father was always saying before he passed (in 2014) that you have to be aware of when to quit.

“So many of my supporters have said to me that they wanted me to go to the Tokyo Olympics, and it made me feel that I needed to keep going and I’ve been indecisive to come to this point.”

She added: “I’ve seen younger wrestlers have performed well on the global (stage) more lately and I thought I could pass the baton to them. While I was practicing with them, I was feeling their energy and I was thinking I’ve done everything I could possibly do. So I made up my mind after I watched the competitions at the Emperor’s Cup in December.”

Yoshida didn’t compete at the Emperor’s Cup, officially known as the All-Japan Championships, the first stage of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics.

She lost to American Helen Maroulis in the gold-medal match at 53 kg in Rio, and it ended up being her last official bout.

Yoshida, a coach for the Japan women’s national team who intends to stay in that role, said that she could still compete physically, but hinted she does not have much to prove anymore.

The native of Tsu, Mie Prefecture, collected a combined 16 gold medals at the world championships and Olympics between 2002 and 2012. She won 206 consecutive matches in individual competitions until the upset loss to Maroulis in Brazil.

Asked which medal that she had captured in global events at the global events was most memorable, Yoshida chose the rare one not colored gold.

“Well, that’s difficult…” Yoshida said, pausing before giving an answer. “But starting at the world championships in 2002, I was able to perform well on the global stage until the 2016 Rio Olympics, and I cherish every medal I earned. But because I’d always been at the highest spot on the podium and just had the excitement for winning. But I stood on the second place on the podium in Rio and it taught me how others had felt like. So I think the one I won in Rio grew me the most.”

Yoshida said she probably revealed her retirement plans first to her mother, Yukiyo, who was appreciative that she could attend so many big tournaments overseas because of her daughter.

“She began wrestling when she was 3,” Yukiyo said, reflecting on her daughter’s career. “But looking back, it’s been so fast. But she’s taken her family to the world championship and Olympics so many times. She’s really a dutiful daughter.”

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