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Icho had memories of mom on mind before winning wrestling gold at Rio

Kaori Icho shakes hands with her sister Chiharu after winning the final of the women's 58-kilogram freestyle wrestling at the Rio Olympics on Aug. 17, 2016, to claim her fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal. At left is a photo of Icho's deceased mother Toshi. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- After Kaori Icho defeated Russia's Valeriia Koblova Zholobova in the women's 58-kilogram freestyle wrestling final here on Aug. 17 to win the gold medal, she approached the stands, and hugged and kissed a photo of her mother.

"I think my mother helped me in the end," she said. It had been a tough bout for the 32-year-old, who had trailed her opponent until the final stages.

Icho's victory, making her the first female athlete to win four consecutive Olympic gold medals in individual events, came less than two years after the death of her mother Toshi in November 2014. Her mother suddenly collapsed at home in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, and Icho rushed home from Tokyo but her mother had already lost consciousness. She stroked her mother's head, calling out "Mom." But her mother had hit her head badly and she passed away, aged just 65.

After her victory at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Icho wondered whether she should continue wrestling. It was at that time that her mother said, "I want to see more of your bouts." Icho was happy to hear this and made the decision to keep competing.

Following the loss of her mother, Icho couldn't bring herself to start practicing right away. But the Japan wrestling championships were approaching the following month. Her mother had been tough about her wins and losses, and always gave her a pep talk before her bouts. She felt as if her mother were saying, "I don't want you to say you didn't compete because of me," and so she decided to enter the competition.

In the final of the world wrestling championships in Russia in January this year, Icho suffered her first loss in 13 years. She was trying out a new style of attack during the bout, but it didn't go well and in a rare moment she lost sight of herself, allowing her opponent to take the lead and win. After the bout, she learned the importance of learning from defeat from her 34-year-old sister Chiharu, a silver medalist at the 2004 Athens and the 2008 Beijing Games.

Icho's silver medal lies next to a photo of her mother on a dresser at her home. Before setting out each day, she says, "I'm going out now." She thinks she could say anything on her mind to her mother. While there may be no immediate answer, it feels as if she can hear her mother's tough words, "No matter what, you have to win."

Icho says she has more "conversations" with her mother now than when her mother was alive and well.

By suffering a loss at the world championships, her mind was trained. And as she approached her long-awaited Olympic bouts, she sought to rise to the top with her mother in mind. (By Tadashi Murakami, Mainichi Shimbun)

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