Two-time former world champion Yui SUSAKI achieved her long-awaited dream of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, and Greco-Roman national champion Shohei YABIKU also earned a ticket at the Asian Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Susaki had little trouble finishing among the top two in the women’s 50kg division at the tournament held April 9-11, securing the only remaining spot among the six in women’s wrestling that Japan had not yet filled.
With just five entrants, Susaki’s weight class was run in a round-robin format, and she powered her way to four straight victories, all by technical fall and without conceding a point. Her aggregate score was 41-0.
Susaki won her first world title at 48kg in 2017, then defended it the following year when it was revised to 50kg. With the four wins in Almaty, she remains undefeated against foreign competition and extended her winning streak against non-Japanese opponents to 66. Of those wins, six were by fall and 50 by technical fall.
Japan secured spots in the five other women’s weight classes at the 2019 World Championships in the Kazakhstan capital of Nursultan. Susaki earned the right to compete for the 50kg spot in Almaty by winning the All-Japan title later that year, then had to endure a long delay after the Olympic qualifying tournament was postponed a year after the Tokyo Olympics were put back to 2021.
“I had a long, tough path to get here, but at last I will be able to stand at the start line of the Tokyo Olympics,” Susaki said. “I will give everything I have to absolutely win the gold medal.”
Yabiku picked up Japan’s second Olympic spot in Greco-Roman when he advanced to the final in Almaty at 77kg. The top two in each weight qualified their country for the Tokyo Games.
Victories over wrestlers from Qatar and Tajikstan set up a semifinal clash with Hujun ZHANG (CHN), the 2019 Asian silver medalist at 72kg. Yabiku trailed the Chinese 2-2 on criteria going into the second period, but came back with two takedowns to win 6-2 and clinch the Olympic berth. In the final, he lost 7-3 to 2018 Asian Games silver medalist Akzhol MAKHMUDOV (KGZ).
“I feel I was able to fulfill my father’s dream,” said Yabiku, whose father, Tamotsu, won national championships in 1989 and 1991 but never appeared in the Olympics. “From now, in pursuit of my dream of winning an Olympic gold medal, I want to raise my game one or two levels and get the gold medal.”
In Greco, Japan had already secured one Olympic place when Kenichiro FUMITA won the 60kg gold at the 2019 World Championships. The nation will get a last chance at 67kg, 87kg, 97kg and 130kg at the Final World Qualifying Tournament in May in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, no freestyle berths were added to the two that Japan secured at 65kg and 74kg in Nursultan.
Rei HIGUCHI, the 2016 Rio Olympic silver medalist, failed to make weight at 57kg and was disqualified, and another top hopeful, two-time Olympian Sohsuke TAKATANI, was dealt a heartbreaking loss in the semifinals at 86kg. Takatani gave up a late takedown to Zushen LIN (CHN) to fall behind 7-7 on big-point criteria, and eventually lost 8-7 after an unsuccessful challenge.
Japan will get a last chance to qualify in those two weight classes, as well as 97kg and 125kg, at the Final Olympic qualifier in Bulgaria.
Two days after the Asian Olympic Qualifying Tournament, the Asian Championships were held April 13-18 at the same venue in Almaty. Unfortunately, the women’s team — which had included the five Olympic team members — was withdrawn just before departing Japan because of suspected contact with someone infected with the coronavirus.
No team members tested positive themselves, but the decision was made to pull out of the tournament as a precaution. As such, Japan had entries in only the two men’s styles.
There were two Olympic-bound team members entered in freestyle, with Takuto OTOGURO at 65kg and older brother Keisuke OTOGURO at 74kg.
Takuto successfully defended the title he won a year ago in New Delhi and against the same opponent, but this time Bajrang PUNIA (IND) had to default the final due to injury, conceding the gold to Otoguro. Otoguro defeated Morteza GHIASI CHEKA (IRI), the silver medalist at the Individual World Cup in December last year, 8-2 in the semifinals.
“I was set to fight in the final,” Otoguro said. “There’s nothing you can do [about an injury], but it’s still disappointing. I’ll keep this feeling for the Olympics. My first-round and semifinal opponents are strong wrestlers who had achieved results internationally.”
For Otoguro, the tournament was his first since winning his first Asian title in February 2020.
“The techniques and motivation that I have worked on for the past year came out, showing that what I did over the past year was not in vain,” Otoguro said. “I will do my best to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.”
Keisuke Otoguro, competing internationally for the first time since moving up to the Olympic weight class of 74kg, had his tournament ended abruptly with an opening-match loss to Sumiyabazar ZANDANBUD (MGL).
In Greco-Roman at the Asian Championships, Japan got gold medals from Yu SHIOTANI at 55kg and Tsuchika SHIMOYAMADA at 67kg.
Shiotani, making his international debut on the senior level, rolled to a technical fall victory over 2019 gold medalist Ilkhom BAKHROMOV (UZB) in the final. At 19 years 5 months 17 days, that made Shiotani the youngest-ever Japanese champion in either of the men’s wrestling styles at either an Asian Championships or Asian Games.
Japan’s previous youngest gold medalist was Takashi KOBAYASHI, the 1988 Seoul Olympic champion at 48kg who was 19 years 6 months 13 days when he won a freestyle gold at the 1982 Asian Games.
In Greco-Roman, Shiotani eclipsed by nearly two years the record of Kenichiro FUMITA, who was 21 years 4 months 23 days at the time of his triumph at 59kg at the 2017 Asian Championships.
Shimoyamada’s path to the continental gold included a pair of victories with the added satisfaction of revenge.
In the semifinals, Shimoyamada defeated Hossein ASSADI KOLMATI (IRI), avenging a loss to the Iranian in their bronze-medal match last year in New Delhi.
Then he settled an older score in the final, fighting back from the brink of a technical fall loss to defeat Almat KEBISPAYEV (KAZ) by fall after building a 12-7 lead. It was three years ago in the Asian final in Bishkek that Kebispayev defeated Shimoyamada 5-1 for the gold.
Japan also had three bronze medalists in each style, with Yuto TAKESHITA (57kg), Shoya SHIMAE (61kg) and Takashi ISHIGURO (97kg) placing third in freestyle and Ayata SUZUKI (60kg), Taishi HORIE (72kg) and Satoki MUKAI (82kg) making the podium in Greco-Roman.
Meanwhile, Oleg BOLTIN (KAZ), a four-time Japan collegiate champion at Yamanashi Gakuin University, won his first major international title by striking gold at freestyle 125kg in his home country. Currently a member of New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s amateur wrestling team, he is looking to fill Kazakhstan’s berth at 125kg at the Tokyo Olympics.
Former world champion Yuki TAKAHASHI was named to the squad to be dispatched to the Final World Olympic Qualifying Tournament to be held May 6-9 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Takahashi will aim to earn an Olympic berth at freestyle 57kg, one of three freestyle weight classes in which Japan’s entrant will be different from the one who competed at the Asian qualifier in Almaty. Takahashi will go in place of Higuchi, whose bid to qualify in Almaty ended when he failed to make weight.
In the other weight classes, Takeshi YAMAGUCHI is entered at 97kg and Taiki YAMAMOTO at 125kg. If any among the trio places in the top two in Sofia and earns an Olympic spot for Japan, they will face the wrestler who competed in Almaty in a playoff to fill the berth.
Takatani, looking to make up for his disappointing loss in Almaty at 86kg, will get a second chance in Sofia in a bid to make a third Olympics.
In Greco-Roman, the four wrestlers who failed to win Olympic spots in Almaty will all be dispatched to Sofia — Shogo TAKAHASHI at 67kg, Masato SUMI at 87kg, Yuta NARA at 97kg and Arata SONODA at 130kg.
Her aunt is one of the greatest women’s wrestler in history. Now Nanami YOSHIDA is well on her way to making a name for herself.
Yoshida, the niece of retired three-time Olympic champion Saori YOSHIDA, won the cadet 43kg title at the JOC Junior Queens Cup, held April 10-11 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym.
Yoshida, who attends Ichishi Junior High School in Tsu, Mie Prefecture, was the lone junior high schooler among the cadet division champions, which included Nagisa HARADA at 49kg. Harada, of Hyogo Prefecture’s Ashiya Gakuen High School, was the 2019 world cadet champion at 43kg.
In the junior division, four winners at last December’s senior All-Japan Championships had little trouble taking golds against their age-group peers. Keio University’s Nonoka OZAKI claimed the title at 62kg, along with fellow senior national champs Akari FUJINAMI (Mie’s Inabe Gakuen High School) at 53kg, Tsugumi SAKURAI (Ikuei University) at 55kg and Yuka KAGAMI (Toyo University) at 76kg.
The victors earned places on Japan’s team to the World Junior Championships scheduled for August in Russia.
The boy’s JOC Junior Olympic Cup scheduled for April 24-25 in Yokohama was canceled due a recent surge in coronavirus infections.
－Translation by Ken Marantz