Sena Irie was all-smiles even before she won Olympic gold.
Irie looked nothing like a boxer who was moments away from the biggest fight of her life when she entered Kokugikan Arena on Tuesday sporting a bright smile ahead of her gold medal bout with the Philippines’ Nesthy Petecio.
Mere minutes later, the 20-year-old wasn’t just smiling, she was leaping into the air after it was announced the judges had given her a unanimous, 5-0 victory in the women’s featherweight class final to become Japan’s first female boxing champion at the Olympics.
After all the judges scored in favor of the local boxer in the opening round, Petecio rallied to win the next. The third and final round became a dogfight, with the two giving each other everything they could handle, yet Irie landed a few one-twos and timely body shots to edge the 2019 world champion.
The home favorite capitalized on her footwork to keep her distance from the Filipino, who aggressively tried to come inside, allowing Irie to land effective counter blows.
“I don’t remember anything (about the fight),” Irie said during a television interview after the medal ceremony, joking that she had already changed out of her boxing clothes before she knew it. “I’ve pinched my cheek to make sure I wasn’t dreaming so many times. I still feel like I’m dreaming.”
But Irie’s win didn’t simply make history for her sport.
The Yonago native also became the first Olympic gold medalist — in the Summer or Winter Games — from Tottori Prefecture, and only the third medalist overall from the sparsely populated prefecture.
Okinawa is now the only prefecture that has not produced an Olympic gold medalist.
Irie is the sixth Japanese boxer to medal at the Olympics and third to win gold after Takao Sakurai and Ryota Murata, who were crowned as champions in the men’s bantamweight and middleweight divisions at the 1964 Tokyo and 2012 London Games, respectively.
Irie humbly insisted that she isn’t athletic and hopes that her win will inspire the country’s younger generation and help them believe they can accomplish anything through hard work.
“I feel honored to have become the first gold medalist (from Tottori Prefecture),” she said. “I’m not athletically talented…. But hopefully I was able to deliver the message that you can earn something big with your own hard work.”
Irie said she also hopes her win will dispel the sport’s barbaric image.
“When you hear that a girl like me does boxing, you might think she is violent with a quick temper or something,” she said. “But I and other national team members have mild personalities, so hopefully (my gold medal) will help change that perception.”
While in elementary school, Irie was inspired to pick up boxing from the manga series “Ganbare Genki.” She learned to box at the Sugar Knuckle Boxing Gym in her hometown.
But despite her triumph, Irie is already looking ahead to a future that doesn’t include competitive boxing.
The junior at Nippon Sport Science University said she plans to hang up her gloves after graduating.
“I want to crown my career with a triumph so I’m going to finish my boxing career when I’m done with university,” she said. “I love video games, so it would be great if I get hired by a gaming company.”
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