Japan Wrestling Federation News ― September 2023 (Senior World Championships)


Japan gains 10 spots at Paris Olympics

The senior World Championships, held Sept. 16-24 in Belgrade, Serbia, also served as the first qualifying tournament for the 2024 Paris Olympics, and Japan came away with spots in 10 of the 18 Olympic weight classes.

The Japanese women secured spots in all six weight classes, while the men gained two each in freestyle and Greco-Roman. The top five finishers in each weight class earned the Olympic spot for their national federation. The 10 secured by Japan was the most of any nation, followed by the United States and Iran with seven each.

In Olympic weight classes, Yui SUSAKI (50kg), Akari FUJINAMI (53kg), Tsugumi SAKURAI (57kg) and Yuka KAGAMI (76kg) won gold medals, while Sakura MOTOKI (62kg) won a silver medal. In accordance with Japan federation criteria, by medaling those five automatically fill the Olympic berths themselves.

The lone women’s berth that is still to be filled is at 68kg, where Ami ISHII earned the spot by placing fifth. She can clinch it for herself by winning the title at the Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Championships in December. If another wrestler wins the title, she will face Ishii in a playoff at a date to be determined.

Japan’s women medalists, from left, Miwa MORIKAWA, Yuka KAGAMI, Yui SUSAKI, Nonoka OZAKI, Tsugumi SAKURAI and Haruna OKUNO (Missing is Sakura MOTOKI).

In freestyle, Rei HIGUCHI won the silver medal at 57kg and Daichi TAKATANI took a bronze at 74kg to secure their tickets to Paris. A similar situation occurred in Olympic weight classes in Greco-Roman, where Kenichiro FUMITA finished second at 60kg and Nao KUSAKA third at 77kg.

Susaki defends 50kg title, wins 4th overall

Yui SUSAKI successfully defended her women’s 50kg title by beating the same opponent in the final as a year ago, and with the victory earned a chance to repeat as Olympic champion in Paris.

Susaki, despite nursing a knee injury that curtailed her preparations, defeated Otgonjargal DOLGORJAV (MGL) in the final, just as she did last year in the same arena in Belgrade, for her fourth world title overall.

Of Japan’s four gold medalists in women’s wrestling at the Tokyo Olympics, Susaki is the only one who has earned a ticket to Paris.

Susaki revealed that she suffered a knee injury three weeks ago and was unable to lift her right foot. “It was a tough time, but the fact that I was able to get over it gives me a boost of confidence for the future,” she said.

By winning a second straight world title at 50kg, Yui SUSAKI earned a chance to defend her Olympic title.

At 53kg, Akari FUJINAMI regained the world title she won in 2021 but was unable to defend last year due to an injury. But it was not without an early scare.

In her opening match, Fujinami gave up five points early in the first period against Lucia YEPEZ (ECU), but managed to turn the tide and eventually build a 16-7 lead before winning by fall.

Her opponent in the gold-medal match was veteran Vanesa KALADZINSKAYA (AIN, or independent neutral athlete), who had won world titles in 2012 and 2017 — both times by beating a Japanese opponent in the final.

But Fujinami would not suffer the same fate, rolling to a 10-0 technical fall that was her fifth win of the tournament, extending her current winning streak to 127 matches dating back to 2017.

When Fujinami won her first senior world title in 2021 in Oslo, her father — who has been her coach since childhood — was not by her side. But this time, Shunichi was there the whole way in her corner. After her victory in the final, the two took a victory lap together around the mat, each holding one end of the Japanese flag.

Akari FUJINAMI takes a victory lap with father and coach Shunichi for the first time after winning the 53kg gold.

Tsugumi SAKURAI, the defending champion at 57kg, maintained her hold on the throne, and did it with successive wins in the semifinals over 2021 world champion Helen MAROULIS (USA) and the final over Anastasia NICHITA (MDA), last year’s gold medalist at 59kg. Adding in her 55kg title in 2021, it was Sakurai’s third straight world gold.

Sakurai’s path to the Paris Olympics suffered a setback in December last year with a loss at the Emperor’s Cup. But she righted the ship and won out in the grueling domestic process to make the team to Belgrade, where her gold at 57kg clinched a place in Paris.

An impressive performance was turned in at 76kg by Yuka KAGAMI, who defeated six-time world champion Adeline GRAY (USA) en route to becoming Japan’s first gold medalist in the heaviest women’s weight class in two decades.

Kagami chalked up the biggest victory of her young career when she defeated Gray 4-1 in the quarterfinals. In the final she defeated Asian silver medalist Aiperi MEDET KYZY (KGZ).

Kagami had previously won world titles on the cadet (U17) and junior (U20) levels. Her victory made her the first Japanese champion in the heaviest weight on the senior level since Kyoko HAMAGUCHI in 2003.

Motoki joins father as Olympian

Sakura MOTOKI had to settle for the silver medal at women’s 62kg after losing to Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ), who became a three-time world champion by adding to the titles she previously won in 2019 and 2021.

But for Motoki, there was the consolation of having secured her place at the Paris Olympics. Her father Yasutoshi competed at Greco 63kg at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and, when she takes the mat in Paris, it will make them the first-ever father-daughter Olympians in wrestling history.

In non-Olympic weight classes, Japan got gold medals from Haruna OKUNO at 55kg and Nonoka OZAKI at 65kg, and a bronze from Miwa MORIKAWA at 72kg.

For Ozaki, it was her second straight gold, having triumphed at 62kg the previous year. Morikawa had won the world title last year 65kg. Both are expected to be among the challengers for the unfilled Paris spot at 68kg at the Emperor’s Cup in December.

Okuno won her first world title since 2018 and third overall. She won at 55kg in 2017 and 53kg in 2018.

Overall, the Japanese women captured six of the 10 gold medals at stake, exceeding the five won the previous year. Adding in the one silver and one bronze, Japan easily topped the team standings with 195 points, well ahead of the United States in second with 135, for its ninth straight title dating back to 2013.

The Japan women’s team, which won a ninth straight team title, poses with coaches and staff.

Higuchi earns trip back to Olympics

Rei HIGUCHI, the freestyle 61kg world champion last year who moved back down to the Olympic weight of 57kg, competed in his first international tournament in that division since winning the silver medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Higuchi settled for the silver medal after losing to Stevan MICIC (SRB) in the final, but more importantly, he earned another chance at the Olympic gold that controversially eluded him in Rio after missing out on the Tokyo Olympics.

He will become just the second Japanese wrestler in history to compete in a second Olympics after missing one, not including those affected by the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The only other one to do so was Hidekazu YOKOYAMA, who appeared at freestyle 82kg at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and again eight years later at 84kg in Athens in 2004.

Rei HIGUCHI gestures to “keep calm” after securing his spot at the Paris Olympics at freestyle 57kg. His objective was not just getting to Paris.

Making his long-awaited mark on the global scene was Daichi TAKATANI at 74kg. Takatani launched his run to a bronze medal and a place in Paris with a first-round win over veteran Frank CHAMIZO (ITA), a former two-time world champion and Olympic bronze medalist who won a bronze medal last year.

After being dealt a close loss by defending champion Kyle DAKE (USA) in the semifinals, Takatani defeated Georgis KOUGIOUMTSIDIS (GRE) in the bronze-medal match.

By making it to Paris, Takatani follows in the footsteps of his older brother Sohsuke, who was a three-time Olympian who appeared in the 2012, 2016 and 2021 Games.

In Greco-Roman, Tokyo Olympic silver medalist Kenichiro FUMITA‘s bid to regain the world 60kg title that he had won in both 2017 and 2019 was foiled in a wild final by defending champion Zholaman SHARSHENBEKOV (KGZ) 11-6.

While most opponents are cautious of Fumita’s trademark big throws and avoid close contact, Fumita praised Sharshenbekov for “being dignified and tying up with me,” then vowed to get revenge in Paris.

Kenichiro FUMITA, left, is looking for a rematch of the gold-medal match with Zholaman SHARSHENBEKOV (KGZ), 2nd from left, at Greco 60kg at the Paris Olympics.

Japan also earned a berth in Paris at Greco 77kg, thanks to an impressive performance from Nao KUSAKA, who won a bronze medal in his senior World Championships debut.

After his victory in the bronze-medal match, Kusaka revealed for the first time to the Japanese media the roots of his somewhat unusual first name. His mother, he said, was a fan of 2000 Olympic women’s marathon champion Naoko TAKAHASHI, and used the same kanji character for Nao as the runner’s.

“I was able to realize my mother’s wish,” Kusaka said with an air of emotion on becoming an Olympian.

Norway coach Yoneoka produces bronze medalist

Just over a year after being appointed as coach of Norway’s women’s team, Japan’s Yurie YONEOKA, who competed and coached collegiately in the United States, has produced a home-grown world bronze medalist in Othelie HOEIE (NOR).

Hoeie finished third at 59kg, adding to the bronze she won at the European Championships in April. Her performance in Belgrade added a new chapter to the wrestling history of Norway, which was once a world powerhouse in women’s wrestling but had seen hard times of late.

A proud Norway coach Yurie YONEOKA, right, poses with home-grown 59kg bronze medalist Othelie HOEIE.

Norway was among the pioneer nations in women’s wrestling, which began to spread after the first World Championships was organized in 1983 by FILA (now United World Wrestling). Hoeie’s mother Gudrun was among the first stars, winning five world titles. Over the years, Norway, Sweden and other leading nations yielded the top spot to Japan.

In recent years, Norway’s global presence had been limited to the exploits of Grace BULLEN (NOR), who won a bronze medal at 62kg in Belgrade. Bullen was a former world U23 champion and senior silver medalist last year at 59kg, but she resides in France and trains with her own personal coach, and is not part of the Norwegian national team program.

Hoeie became the first Norwegian woman who had come up through the national system to win a world medal since 2005, when Lene AANES (NOR) won a bronze at 59kg. Hoeie represents a chance for Norway to win a first-ever Olympic medali in Paris.

Coach Yoneoka, who is familiar with other countries’ cultures and customs and has many foreign contacts, can be expected to show her leadership skills on the world stage in the future.

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