RIO DE JANEIRO -- It was a devastating defeat for Saori Yoshida.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist crouched on the mat and could not move for a while after losing to Helen Louise Maroulis of the United States in the women's 53-kilogram freestyle wrestling final on Aug. 18.
"I have accomplished a lot in my 30 years of wrestling, but I really wanted that gold medal," Yoshida, 33, commented while being unable to hold back her tears. She could not stop crying even on the podium at the medal ceremony.
"Win or lose, I have six more minutes," Yoshida told herself before the match. She went for tackles from the first period but could not score except for a single point awarded against Maroulis's passivity. Their score tally reversed in the second period, however, after Maroulis took Yoshida's back. Yoshida aggressively tried to tackle in the last 30 seconds, but time was up and she lost 4-1.
After getting up on her feet, Yoshida rushed to her mother, Yukiyo, and brother, Hidetoshi, who were watching the match in the front row of the stand, and told them, "I'm sorry," with big drops of tears in her eyes. Yukiyo held Yoshida close, saying, "Thank you for taking us this far."
She was still in tears at the medal ceremony as she bowed to the stand. During an interview after the ceremony, Yoshida apologized for not winning a gold medal as the Japan Olympic team captain.
Inspired by Olympic judo gold medalist Ryoko Tani, Yoshida thought of competing in the Games when she was in junior high school. While women's wrestling was not an Olympic sport at the time, she believed her late father, Eikatsu, when he said it will definitely be added to the Games. She won gold in three consecutive Olympics starting with the 2004 Athens Games, in which she competed when she was a fourth-year university student.
After winning her third Olympic gold medal in the London Games four years ago, Yoshida could not bring herself to take the next step toward the Rio Games and tried to come face to face with her own heart while focusing on practice. She won the World Wrestling Championships in September that year, marking her 13th consecutive win in the world championships and Olympics combined, and was given the People's Honor Award by the Japanese government in November. Yoshida then said she would be aiming for gold in Rio.
While she realizes that her physical strength is waning as she ages, Yoshida faced pressure with being expected to win her fourth gold at the Rio Olympics. She would show weakness to her mother, saying, "My legs don't move. It's tough for an old lady." She was labeled as "the strongest female primate" by the Japanese media and her appearance on TV has increased over the years, but such "extracurricular activities" are her own way to relax.
After graduating from Chukyo Women's University, what is now Shigakkan University in Aichi Prefecture, Yoshida has continued to use her alma mater as her practice base and led young wrestlers there with her cheerful character. She was a role model for Eri Tosaka, the Rio Olympics gold medalist in the 48-kilogram freestyle wrestling and 69-kilogram gold medalist Sara Dosho.
For Yoshida, the Rio Games was an event she wanted to dedicate to her father who died in 2014.
"I believe my father was rooting for me until the very end," Yoshida told reporters after the final match. "I think he's saying 'good job,' but he might also be saying, 'It makes a lot of difference if you win or lose in the end.' I might get chewed out by him." (By Tadashi Murakami, Mainichi Shimbun)