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A new wrestling star is born with Kawai's dominating gold medal performance

An emotional Risako Kawai raises her hands to her face after defeating Belarus' Maryia Mamashuk in the 63-kilogram gold medal match in women's wrestling at the 2016 Rio Olympics, on Aug. 18, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- In her Olympic debut, Japan's Risako Kawai grabbed the gold medal in the women's 63-kilogram wrestling final on Aug. 18, defeating Belarus' Maryia Mamashuk. Just a day after Japanese women took medals in three weight classes in last-minute victories, the 21-year-old Kawai secured her place atop the podium with a dominating 6-0 victory.

"I almost got a cramp in the sole of my foot, so this was a 100-percent achievement," Kawai said with obvious satisfaction in her all-out performance.

The young wrestler never showed fear as she grappled with Mamashuk, flying into the Belorussian for a powerful tackle just 30 seconds into the match. Grabbing her right leg, Kawai flipped her opponent to face her back for a quick two points. Kawai didn't let her momentum get away in the second period, adding to her point total with a tackle around Mamashuk's feet.

The Japanese wrestler has given up just two points over her last four matches, and has been the first to attack in every battle from the second period of her first Olympic match on. In other words, she has put her coach's recipe for success -- stay cool and be audacious -- into action.

Kawai's coach Kazuhito Sakae says that she combines the strengths of three of Japan's top wrestlers -- 58-kilogram gold medalist Kaori Icho's defense, 53-kilogram silver medalist Saori Yoshida's abilities on attack, and 48-kilogram gold medalist Eri Tosaka's keen sense of the tipping point between victory and defeat. It was these qualities that prompted Sakae to push Kawai up one level from the 58-kilogram class which she shared with Icho.

Kawai stands at 160 centimeters tall and weighs in at 62 kilograms. That made her both shorter and lighter than all four of her Olympic opponents. Even so, she said she was not worried because she "usually trains with heavier wrestlers," and stirred things up by making the Rio matches about competitions of speed. Sakae, who is also head of the Japan Wrestling Federation's strengthening department, said of Kawai's style, "She was in such great form that she looked the most certain to win of all the Japanese wrestlers. Hers was the most complete victory."

Kawai won the silver at last year's World Wrestling Championships. She arrived in Rio burning to make up for not taking the top spot -- a desire only stoked by seeing three of her teammates win gold medals the day before her own final match at Rio. Just before her appearance against Mamashuk, fellow gold medal hopeful Yoshida went down to a tearful defeat against the United States' Helen Louise Maroulis.

"First and foremost, I was very surprised," said Kawai. However, "I also understood who knows what could happen. I made sure I didn't lose focus on feeling that I would win the gold." It seems Kawai can also rely on steely nerves.

Along with Aug. 17 winner Tosaka, 22, Kawai is at the forefront of Japan's next generation of wrestlers. Kawai has declared that she will "absolutely" be on the mat at the Tokyo 2020 Games. Japanese wrestling has itself a new star. (By Tomoshige Fujino, Mainichi Shimbun)

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