Olympic champion Yui SUSAKI made history as she led a Japanese women’s gold rush at the World U23 Championships in Pontevedra, Spain, on Oct. 17-23.
The women turned in a performance that could hardly have been more dominant, winning gold medals in the seven weight classes from Susaki at 50kg to Miwa MORIKAWA at 65kg and adding one silver and two bronzes in the remaining three divisions.
With every member of the 10-woman squad making it onto the medal podium, the women easily won a fourth straight team title in the years in which Japan entered the tournament.
Susaki, one of three Japanese women in the tournament who won world senior titles last month in Belgrade, stormed to the title in her World U23 debut with four victories by either fall or technical fall, all in the first period and without surrendering a point.
That made Susaki the first wrestler in history to complete the “Grand Slam” of winning all four world age-group titles and an Olympic gold. Susaki, who won the Olympic gold last year in Tokyo, won three straight cadet (U17) golds in 2014-16, then won the first of three senior titles in 2018. That year she also added the first of her two junior (U20) crowns.
The only missing piece of the puzzle was the World U23, a tournament that Susaki had never competed in for the simple fact that it had been canceled the past two years due to the pandemic. This would be Susaki’s first and last chance to complete the set, and she did it in her usual dominant fashion.
Her accomplishment received wide coverage in the Japanese media. Upon returning to Japan, Susaki said, “It is a great honor to leave my name in wrestling history. This is the product of my achievements up to now, and I am glad I made the effort.”
Meanwhile, Nonoka OZAKI joined the elite group of wrestlers with titles in the four world age groups when she captured the 62kg gold. Like Susaki, Ozaki ended all of her matches in the first period, all by technical fall without giving up a point.
For Ozaki, it was her third world-level title of the year, having earlier won the U20 and senior titles to add to her 2018 and 2019 cadet crowns. Amit ELOR (USA), the 72kg champion, won the same three titles this year to also complete the four-title set. Ozaki and Elor became the first-ever to win three age-group titles in the same year.
Prior to Pontevedra, the only winners of the four world age-group titles were Japanese women Masako FURUICHI and Haruna OKUNO. Now there are five members of the group, including Susaki. It is worth noting that the small number is mainly due to the fact that the World U23 only started in 2017.
Okuno was also on the team in Pontevedra and became the first-ever three-time U23 champion with a victory at 53kg, where she was a late replacement for injured 2021 world senior champion Akari FUJINAMI. Despite being rushed into action, the two-time senior world champion looked sharp in giving up just one point in four matches and scoring a 10-0 technical fall in the final.
Japan’s other female champions were Moe KIYOOKA at 55kg, Sae NANJO at 57kg and Himeka TOKUHARA at 59kg. Kiyooka has previously won world golds at U17 and U20, putting her on track to win all four titles.
Morikawa’s victory at 65kg gave her a second world title this year after also triumphing at the senior worlds in Belgrade.
Meanwhile, Tatsuya SHIRAI earned a place in Japanese wrestling history when he won the freestyle 86kg title in Pontevedra, making him the nation’s “heaviest” world champion in any age group.
Shirai’s gold was the lone medal won by Japan’s men in the two U23 styles. The freestyle squad also had two bronze medalists.
Shirai, who had previously won the 86kg gold at the Asian Junior (U20) Championships in 2019, won at the heaviest-ever weight class for a Japanese champion, surpassing Hayato ISHIGURO’s triumph at 79kg at the 2018 World Junior Championships.
Japan’s Greco-Roman squad had no finalists this year after winning at least one gold medal in its last three World U23 appearances in 2017 to 2019. The team did, however, come home with three bronze medals.
Two-time Olympic champion Risako KAWAI, now a mother and competing under her married name of KINJO, returned to action for the first time since her triumph at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics and won the senior 59kg at the Japan Women’s Open on Oct. 16 in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture.
A full report is available at the United World Wrestling website at:
The senior division of the 2022 World Grappling Championships was held on Oct. 14-15 in Pontevedra, Spain, and Japan came away with three gold medals over the different categories.
In the Grappling style, Kanae IKEDA won the gold at women’s 53kg, while Rui HIRABAYASHI won at women’s 53kg and Daiki YONEKURA at men’s 62kg in the Grappling with Gi category.
Ikeda and Hirabayashi met each other in the finals of both categories at 53kg, with the two splitting the matches. Their golds were the first-ever for Japanese women, while Yonekura’s was the first men’s gold in nine years.
Ikeda is a former wrestler and product of the Self-Defense Forces, which has produced many top athletes. Among her accomplishments were bronze medals at the 2016 All-Japan Championships at 50kg and at the 2014 Klippan Lady Open in Sweden at 48kg under her maiden name of YAMADA. When her dream of making the Olympics ended, she switched to the martial art of jiu-jitsu, which her father had practiced.
While she was unable to reach the pinnacle in wrestling, she did so by changing her sport. “After I won and did a victory lap on the mat with the flag, I started crying thinking about how I had gained a new life after the tough times I had in wrestling,” Ikeda said. “At that moment, I thought that I was glad I had not given up and that I had made it to this point.”
Hirabayashi had transferred from judo, while Yonekura competes in jiu-jitsu while pursuing grappling.
–Translation by Ken Marantz