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Icho overcomes physical strain to win 4th straight Olympic wrestling gold

Kaori Icho holds up her fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal after winning the women's 58-kilogram freestyle wrestling final at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 17, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Daisuke Wada)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Kaori Icho claimed victory in the women's 58-kilogram freestyle wrestling final here on Aug. 17, defeating Russia's Valeriia Koblova Zholobova to claim her fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal an Olympic first for an individual women's event.

    In the final, Icho faced pressure like never before. With only 30 seconds left on the clock, she was still one point down. Koblova Zholobova clutched her right leg. As she spun around to escape, a grip on the left leg of her opponent became her lifeline. She seized the chance to grab her opponent's back, and scored two points to take the lead again with just three seconds remaining. Victory was hers.

    With her win, Icho made history. In the 116 years since 1900, when women first participated in the Olympic Games, no female Olympian had managed to win four consecutive medals in an individual women's event.

    Icho said she first got a feel for her accomplishment when she responded to a photographer's request to hold up four fingers to commemorate the victory.

    Kaori Icho, left, competes with Russia's Valeriia Koblova Zholobova to win gold in the women's 58-kilogram freestyle wrestling final at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 17, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Daisuke Wada)

    In the past she had always placed priority on the content of her bouts rather than on winning or losing, and said that competition was a chance to display the fruits of her practice. But she says she felt scared before her bout in the final this time.

    At the Ivan Yarygin 2016 wrestling tournament in Russia in January she was defeated for the first time in 13 years, bringing her string of consecutive victories to a halt at 189. At 32, she faced physical stress from going up against a constant stream of young challengers. She had chronic neck pain, and in June she injured her left shoulder and was in hospital for several days. The pain also spread to her right shoulder. She injected painkillers and took medicine to return to the mat.

    On Aug. 17, her victory was different from her past three overwhelming Olympic gold medal wins, underscoring the difficulty of winning four straight gold medals in the physically demanding sport of wrestling. Even the Russian wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, who earned a reputation as being the "strongest male primate," went no further than three straight Olympic golds (from the 1998 Olympics in Seoul to the 1996 Atlanta Games).

    Ito had switched weight categories, from 63 kilograms down to 58. Her opponents were new faces. Though they had less power, their speed and tackling accuracy were higher. Moreover Icho had to lose weight.

    After her bouts Icho evaluated her performance as usual.

    "Discounting the gold medal, I'd say, oh, about 30 points (out of 100)," she said.

    Her harsh evaluation hinted at her higher ambitions, but when asked about the possibility of going for a fifth consecutive Olympic gold in 2020, she replied, "I can't think about it at this point. I want to bask in the glow of the gold medal."

    The shoulders of the Olympian, who had just made history, were relaxed. (By Tomoshige Fujino, Mainichi Shimbun)

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