Icho, Kaori Icho, Olympic champion, female wrestling

Kaori Icho: Pursuing Her Own Perfection

By Tim Foley

When Kaori Icho won her ninth world championship Thursday night in Tashkent absent were the backflips, tears and group hugs of previous champions. The Japanese wrestler fulfilled her requirement to wave the flag of her home country, but otherwise shooke hands, bowed off the mat and walked off the stage.

Icho’s unaffected reaction to winning a world title might be attributed to her three Olympic gold medals and eight previous world championships. All told, the Japanese great has won a total of 12 world titles, leaving her second all-time in female wrestling behind teammate Saori Yoshida who has 15 world titles on her resume. Those numbers make Icho and Yoshida inarguably the two greatest female wrestlers to ever walk the planet.

Despite the heady assertions and a 172-match winning streak, Icho is not interested in penning history or acquiring titles. She doesn’t want another gold medal for her bedroom or sponsorship money for her bank account.  What Icho wants and why she still wrestles can’t be counted or written down.

It has to be seen.


Kaori Icho headed into the 2008 Olympic Games a woman under pressure. She was the defending 2004 champion and hadn’t lost a match since 2003. The media burden in Japan was growing and she felt a growing dissatisfaction with the sport and all its offerings.

Icho’s solution was to discuss retirement. Warm and thoughtful, Icho knew that female wrestling was still in its infancy and she could step off the mat as a two-time Olympic champion at the age of 24. Icho was young enough to conquer something new, maybe a sport, maybe a job.

Her older sister, Chiharu, an eventual two-time Olympic silver medalist, would also be competing in the Beijing Games and had already announced her retirement – a declaration that gave Icho the opening she needed to slough off the stress and unwanted attention of her wrestling career, should she choose to follow her sister.

In addition to her sister, Icho was sharing her Olympic journey with teammate and friend Saori Yoshida, who’d also won an Olympic gold in 2004 and was mentored by her father and national team coach, Eikatsu Yoshida.

“I know that the gold medals mean a lot to Saori,” says Icho. “This is what motivates her and what motivates many wrestlers. I was like this, too, but it wasn’t right for me. Something wasn’t working.”

Icho floated the idea of retirement and, in a country cued into the plans of their most dominant Olympians, the rumors reached the press. “I never made the decision to retire, but I did need a change. I very much needed a change.”

Icho had been training at the same club near Nagoya for much of her life. When she finally took a moment to look up from the mats at age 24 she wanted change.

“I had the same training partners and the same coach,” explains Icho. “ Nothing was wrong with them, I just couldn’t get stronger without something new. If I was going to stay in wrestling I needed to find a new path.”

Of course, Icho would win in Beijing.  And, after her title was announced, she threw her arms in the air and beamed a smile. But that wasn’t from an appreciation of her achievement as much as an alleviation of the stress.

Icho sat out the 2008 World Championships – the model for other world meets for women run concurrently in Olympic years until 2016. Yoshida wrestled, and as she always seems to do, she won.

Icho chose not to retire, but she did decide to leave Japan. She hadn’t left wrestling, but she’d left Japan and moved to Canada.

“I wanted to experience life overseas and see how foreigners trained,” says Icho. “The biggest difference that I saw was how well the athletes and coaches communicated.”

In Japan the athlete-coach relationship is simple: coaches give instructions and wrestlers listen. In Canada, the coaches and the athletes had relationships; they enjoyed each other’s company on a personal level.

“I envied their relationships,” says Icho.

Icho traveled home to Japan, on occasion, but spent the majority of the next eight months training in Canada. She learned English, sat out the 2009 world championships and, in the time away from battling in competition, rediscovered what she loved about the sport -- and it wasn’t winning gold medals.

In addition to envying the close coach-athlete connection she saw in Canada, Icho saw that training methods varied from country to country. Sheltered and cared for in Nagoya, she’d never seen training that didn’t include running (which she dislikes) and was able to use more power lifts in her strength training (which she likes).

When Icho returned to Japan she chose to spend much of her time at the national training center for male wrestlers and looked for college programs and coaches she liked. She spent weeks absorbing new techniques, and also new attitudes – how one school trained varied from another, and from that she cobbled together a loose emotional and physical sketch of what it would take for her to get back on the mats for competition. Icho became more focused on the techniques and chess match of wrestling than on the aggression so often used as a skill. She discovered that passion could always be defeated by pressure or circumstance, but technical acumen was unbeatable, and its acquisition is, in and of itself, fulfilling.

That Icho is uniquely talented cannot be questioned. Her speed and athleticism are evident to even the most casual wrestling observer, but that she’s more spry, more active and more technical runs counterintuitive to the sport’s natural maturation. Thirty-something wrestlers slow down; they are more often injured and often eschew finer movements in favor of fewer movements.

Icho, who turns 30 in June, says that her ongoing improvements are a result of training with men who focus her on better techniques and tougher training regiments. With harder work in tougher scenarios, Icho believes her body will more often retain new techniques.

“Men are more profound in their detail and the moves are more complicated and that makes learning them a serious process.”

Icho refuses to put an expiration date on her career. If she were as poetic in her career path as she is on the mat she might decide to wrestle until the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Should she win every championship from now until then, she’d end her career with 18 world titles including five Olympic gold medals. But the titles have never mattered, and she won’t start creating storylines for herself.

“I’m not sure when the end will come for me, but I will be wrestling all my life,” says Icho. “I am a wrestler, but I will know when my time as competitor must give way to my time as a coach.”

For now, Icho wrestles one match at a time. Always wondering if she can achieve perfection in her lifetime, knowing that her own expectations become loftier with each technique mastered.

“My goal, my only goal, is to get to closer to the image in my head of what wrestling can be,” says Icho. “Competition is important and it will enrich your life.”

”I’m only now seeing that improvement is what gives me satisfaction and puts a smile on my face."




February Rankings, United World Wrestling, Women's Wrestling, Icho, Zhou, Vorobieva, Maroulis, Gray

Zhou Takes Over No.1 at 69kg, Icho Still Atop 58kg in Women’s Rankings

By William May

CORSIER-SUR-VEVEY (February 3) – World silver medalist ZHOU Feng (CHN) emerged the new leader at 69kg in the first United World Wrestling rankings for women’s wrestling in 2016.

Zhou took over the top spot after an upset loss by world champion Natalia VOROBIEVA (RUS) at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games test event, which featured some of the top female wrestlers in the world.

Zhou defeated former junior world champion Dorothy YEATS (CAN) in the light heavyweight final by technical fall after the Pan American Games gold medalist defeated Vorobieva in the opening round.

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, another world champion also stumbled, but still remains on top of her weight category in this month’s rankings.

Three-time Olympic Games gold medalist Kaori ICHO (JPN), who had won 189 matches in a row following her last loss in 2003, was stunned in the 58kg final at the Yarygin Grand Prix tourney in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

Unranked PUREVDORJ Orkhon (MGL), who wrestles most frequently at 55kg, had an answer for all of Icho’s attacks and ended up with a technical fall over the 10-time world champion. 

Despite the loss, Icho remains in control of 58kg – at least, for the time being -- since there were no challengers in the rankings in a position to take up the mantle.

A challenge, however, was issued to three-time world champion Adeline GRAY (USA) by Erica WIEBE (CAN), who had pinned 2013 world champion ZHANG Fengliu (CHN) in the semifinals at 75kg in Rio.

Gray defeated a pair of silver medal winners from the previous world championships in Aline FERREIRA (BRA) in the quarterfinals and ZHOU Qian (CHN) in the semifinals before edging Wiebe, 7-4, in the final.
Wrestlers in the rankings are listed by name, country code, most notable or most recent result over the last 12 months, and their position in the previous rankings.

48kg – 2013 world champion SUN Yanan (CHN) took an injury default from Valentina ISLAMOVA (RUS) to climb to No.3 in the rankings while Asia champion Yuki IRIE (JPN) won her second Yarygin Grand Prix by fall over Nadezhda FEDOROVA (RUS) to break into the rankings at No.8.

1. Eri TOSAKA (JPN) – World No.1 (1)
2. Mariya STADNYK (AZE) – World No.2 (2)
3. SUN Yanan (CHN) – Rio Test Event No.1 (7)
4. Valentina ISLAMOVA (RUS) – Rio Test No.2 (4)
5. Genevieve MORRISON (CAN) – World No.3 (3)
6. Jessica BLASZKA (NED) – World No.3 (5)
7. Li Hui (CHN) – World No.5 (6)
8. Yuki IRIE (JPN) – Yarygin Grand Prix No.1 (Not ranked)
9. Carolina CASTILLO HIDALGO (COL) – Paris GP No.3 (11)
10. Patricia BERMUDEZ (ARG) – Dan Kolov No.1 (nr)
11. Natalya PULKOVSKA (UKR) – Dan Kolov No.2 (9)
12. Alyssa LAMPE (USA) – Rio Test No.3 (12)
13. Nadezhda FEDOROVA (RUS) – Yarygin GP No.2 (nr)
14. Yu MIYAHARA (JPN) – World Cup No.2 (8)
15. Tatyana AMANZHOL (KAZ) – Asia No.3 (10)
16. Anna LUKASIAK (POL) – Paris GP No.1 (nr)
17. Jasmine MIAN (CAN) – Rio Test No.3 (nr)
18. ERDENESUKH Narangerel (MGL) – Yarygin GP No.3 (18)
19. Iwona MATKOWSKA (POL) – GGP Final No.3 (16)
20. Elitsa YANKOVA (BUL) – European Games No.2 (14)

53kg – European Games silver medalist Katarzyna KRAWCZYK (POL) got a boost to No.7 with her victory at the Grand Prix of Paris while Lyubov SALNIKOVA (RUS) thumped former world champion Chiho HAMADA (JPN) at the Yarygin Grand Prix as both wrestlers vaulted to No.8 and No.9 in the rankings.

1. Saori YOSHIDA (JPN) – World No.1 (1)
2. Sofia MATTSSON (SWE) – World No.2 (2)
3. Odunayo ADEKUOROYE (NGR) – World No.3 (3)
4. ZHONG Xuechun (CHN) – Rio Test No.1 (4)
5. JONG Myong-Suk (PRK) – World No.3 (5)
6. Angela DOROGAN (AZE) – European Games No.1 (6)
7. Katarzyna KRAWCZYK (POL) – Paris GP No.1 (13)
8. Lyubov SALNIKOV (RUS) – Yarygin GP No.1 (nr)
9. Chiho HAMADA (JPN) – Yarygin GP No.2 (nr)
10. Nadeshda SHUSHKO (BLR) – Paris GP No.3 (9)
11. Maria GUROVA (RUS) – Yarygin GP No.3 (nr)
12. ERDENECHIMEG Sumiya (MGL) – Yarygin GP No.3 (nr)
13. Whitney CONDER (USA) – Pan Am Games No.1 (13)
14. Nina HEMMER (GER) – German GP No.2 (8)
15. Karima SANCHEZ RAMIS (ESP) – Paris GP No.3 (10)
16. Natalia BUDU (MDA) – Dan Kolov No.2 (19)
17. Betzabeth ARGUELLO (VEN) – Paris GP No.2 (20)
18. Maria PREVOLARAKI (GRE) – Dan Kolov No.1 (nr)
19. Alma VALENCIA ESCOTO (MEX) – Pan Am Games No.2 (14)
20. Natalya MALYSHEVA (RUS) – Rio Test No.3 (nr)

55kg – Zalina SIDAKOVA (BLR) upset teammate Katsiaryna HANCHAR (BLR) in the final of the Paris Grand Prix to climb seven rungs to No.11 in the ranking. Nadeshda TRETYAKOVA (RUS) toppled Asia champion Anri KIMURA (JPN) at the Yarygin Grand Prix to join the rankings at No.12

1. Helen MAROULIS (USA) – World No.1 (1)
2. Irina OLOGONOVA (RUS) – World No.2 (2)
3. Evelina NIKOLOVA (BUL) – World No.3 (3)
4. Tatyana KIT (UKR) – World No.3 (4)
5. Katsiaryna HANCHAR (BLR) – Paris GP No.2 (5)
6. PANG Qianyu (CHN) – Spanish GP No.3 (6)
7. Natalya SINISHIN (AZE) – European Games No.3 (7)
8. PUREVDORJ Orkhon (MGL) – Yarygin GP No.1 (nr)
9. Marwa AMRI (TUN) – Poland Open No.1 (8)
10. Anri KIMURA (JPN) – Asia No.1 (9)
11. Zalina SIDAKOVA (BLR) – Paris GP No.1 (18)
12. Nadeshda TRETYAKOVA (RUS) – Yarygin No.1 (nr)
13. Alyona KOLESNIK (AZE) – European U23 No.1 (12)
14. Bediha GUN (TUR) – European U23 No.5 (13)
15. HAN Kum-Ok (PRK) – Asia No.2 (14)
16. SUNDEV Byambatseren (MGL) – World Cup No.3 (10)
17. Hikari SUGAWARA (JPN) – GGP Final No.3 (15)
18. JONG In-Sun (PRK) – GGP Final No.3 (16)
19. Aishan ISMAGULOVA (KAZ) – Medved Prizes No.3 (17)
20. Viktoria SHULGINA (RUS) – Yarygin GP No.3 (nr)

58kg – 2014 European bronze medalist Mimi HRISTOVA (BUL) rallied for her first Dan Kolov title after three years as runner-up to climb to No.8 in the rankings, while LI Qian joins the rankings at No.13 with a runner-up in the Rio test event.
1. Kaori ICHO (JPN) – World No.1 (1)
2. Petra OLLI (FIN) – World No.2 (2)
3. Elif Jale YESILIRMAK (TUR) – World No.3 (3)
4. Johanna MATTSSON (SWE) – GGP Final No.3 (5)
5. Aiym ABDILDINA (KAZ) – GGP Final No.3 (8)
6. Yulia RATKEVICH (AZE) – World No.3 (4)
7. Jackeline RENTERIA CASTILLO (COL) – Medved Prizes No.1 (6)
8. Mimi HRISTOVA (BUL) – Dan Kolov No.1 (12)
9. Marianna SASTIN (HUN) – Poland Open No.2 (8)
10. Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ) – GGP Final No.2 (9)
11. Lissette ANTES CASTILLO (ECU) – Pan Am Games No.3 (10)
12. Grace BULLEN (NOR) – European Games No.3 (11)
13. LI Qian (CHN) – Rio Test No.2 (nr)
14. Michelle FAZZARI (CAN) – Rio Test No.3 (16)
15. BAATARJAV Shoovdor (MGL) – Yarygin GP No.3 (20)
16. Anastassia HUCHOK (BLR) – Poland Open No.1 (13)
17. Tatyana LAVRENCHUK (UKR) – European Games No.2 (14)
18. Lyubov OVCHAROVA (RUS) – Rio Test No.3 (nr)
19. Allison RAGAN (USA) – GGP Final No.2 (15)
20. ZHOU Zhangting (CHN) – Spanish GP No.3 (17)

60kg – Dzhanan MANOLOVA (BUL) won all three bouts in a round-robin tournament at Dan Kolov for the title, while 2014 world champion SUKHEE Tserenchimed (MGL) rebounded from a first-round loss to Kaori ICHO (JPN) for a bronze medal.
1. Oksana HERHEL (UKR) – World No.1 (1)
2. Dzhanan MANOLOVA (BUL) – Dan Kolov No.1 (2)
3. SUKHEE Tserenchimed (MGL) – Yarygin GP No.3 (3)
4. Irina NETREBA (AZE) – Poland Open No.3 (4)
5. Leigh JAYNES (USA) – World No.3 (5)
6. Emese BARKA (HUN) – European Games No.1 (6)
7. LUO Xiaojuan (CHN) – GGP Final No.1 (7)
8. Veranika IVANOVA (BLR) – European Games No.3 (8)
9. Svetlana LIPATOVA (RUS) – European Games No.2 (9)
10. Yulia PRONTSEVICH (RUS) – Yarygin No.1 (nr)
11. Ayaulaylm KASYMOVA (KAZ) – Yarygin No.2 (nr)
12. Victoria BOBEVA (BUL) – Dan Kolov No.3 (11)
13. SUN Yazhen (CHN) – Spanish GP No.3 (10)
14. Natalya FEDOSEEVA (RUS) – Yarygin GP No.3 (nr)
15. Therese PERSSON (SWE) – German GP No.2 (12)
16. Hafize SAHIN (TUR) – European U23 No.3 (13)
17. Jennifer PAGE (USA) – Pan Am No.1 (14)
18. Breanne GRAHAM (CAN) – Pan Am No.2 (15)
19. Kanako MURATA (JPN) – Asia No.2 (16)
20. Yukako KAWAI (JPN) – GGP Final No.3 (17)

63kg – 2014 world champion Yulia TKACH (UKR) appears to have regained form, winning her first title in nearly one year at the Dan Kolov tourney for No.3 in the rankings. Anastasija GRIGORJEVA (LAT) won at the Schultz Memorial for No.4 while Maria MAMASHUK (BLR) won in Paris for No.6.

1. SORONZONBOLD Battsetseg (MGL) – World No.1 (1)
2. Risako KAWAI (JPN) – World No.2 (2)
3. Yulia TKACH (UKR) – Dan Kolov No.1 (5)
4. Anastasija GRIGORJEVA (LAT) – Schultz Memorial No.1 (4)
5. Taybe YUSEIN (BUL) – Dan Kolov No.2 (3)
6. Maria MAMASHUK (BLR) – Paris GP No.1 (7)
7. Braxton STONE (CAN) – Pan Am Games No.1 (6)
8. Valeria LAZINSKAYA (RUS) – European Games No.1 (8)
9. Katherine VIDIAUX LOPEZ (CUB) - Pan Am Games No.2 (9)
10. Danielle LAPPAGE (CAN) – Rio Test No.1 (nr)
11. WANG Xiaoqian (CHN) – Rio Test No.2 (nr)
12. Inna TRAZHUKOVA (RUS) – Yarygin No.1 (nr)
13. Monica MICHALIK (POL) – Paris GP No.2 (15)
14. Ayaka ITO (JPN) – Yarygin GP No.2 (nr)
15. Ekaterina LARIONOVA (KAZ) – Yarygin GP No.3 (11)
16. XILUO Zhuoma (CHN) – Asia No.1 (12)
17. Henna JOHANSSON (SWE) – German GP No.1 (13)
18. Nadeshda MUSHKA (AZE) – Poland Open No.2 (14)
19. Blessing OBORUDUDU (NGR) – All-Africa Games No.1 (16)
20. Erin CLODGO (USA) – Pan Am Games No.3 (17)

69kg – Two of the most recent world champions won events in January – Aline FOCKEN (GER) in Paris and Alina MAKHINYA (UKR) at the Dan Kolov tourney in Sofia – as the last four world champions crowd into the Top Five of the light heavyweight rankings.

1. ZHOU Feng (CHN) – Rio Test No.1 (4)
2. Natalia VOROBIEVA (RUS) – Rio Test No.3 (1)
3. Aline FOCKEN (GER) – Paris GP No.1 (3)
4. Jenny FRANSSON (SWE) – GGP Final No.2 (2)
5. Alina MAKHINYA (UKR) – European Games No.1 (7)
6. Sara DOSHO (JPN) – World No.3 (5)
7. Dorothy YEATS (CAN) – Rio Test No.2 (9)
8. Elena PIROZHKOVA (USA) – GGP Final No.1 (12)
9. OCHIRBAT Nasanburmaa (MGL) – Poland Open No.1 (8)
10. Elmira SYZDYKOVA (KAZ) – Yarygin GP No.1 (11)
11. Agnieszka WIESZCZEK-KORDUS (POL) – Paris GP No.2 (8)
12. Ilana KRATYSH (ISR) – European Games No.2 (12)
13. Dalma CANEVA (ITA) – Yarygin GP No.2 (15)
14. Maria ACOSTA (VEN) – Paris GP No.3 (18)
15. Martina KUENZ (AUT) – German GP No.2 (13)
16. Enass MOUSTAFA (EGY) – All-Africa Games No.1 (14)
17. Tamyra MENSAH (USA) – Rio Test No.3 (nr)
18. Alla CHERKASOVA (UKR) – Dan Kolov No.2 (nr)
19. Darima SANZHEEVA (RUS) – Yarygin GP No.3 (nr)
20. Leah FERGUSON (CAN) – German GP No.3 (16)

75kg – European U23 champion Daria OSOCKA (POL) won the Grand Prix of Paris crown and veteran Svetlana SAENKO (MDA) took the Dan Kolov crown in Sofia to edge up slightly in the rankings at 12th and 13th, respectively.

1. Adeline GRAY (USA) – World No.1 (1)
2. Epp MAE (EST) – GGP Final No.1 (2)
3. Vasilisa MARZALIUK (BLR) – World No.3 (4)
4. Erica WIEBE (CAN) – Rio Test No.2 (5)
5. Aline FERREIRA (BRA) – Rio Test No.3 (6)
6. ZHOU Qian (CHN) – World No.2 (3)
7. Andrea OLAYA GUITIERREZ (COL) – Paris GP No.3 (7)
8. ZHANG Fengliu (CHN) – Rio Test No.3 (11)
9. Ekaterina BUKINA (RUS) – European Games No.2 (8)
10. Hiroe SUZUKI (JPN) – Asia No.1 (10)
11. Justina DISTACIO (CAN) – Pan Am Games No.2 (9)
12. Daria OSOCKA (POL) – Paris GP No.1 (13)
13. Svetlana SAENKO (MDA) – Dan Kolov No.1 (15)
14. Lisset HECHEVARRIA (CUB) – Pan Am Games No.3 (12)
15. Maider UNDA (ESP) – European Games No.3 (14)
16. BADRAKH Odonchimeg (MGL) – Yarygin GP No.1 (nr)
17. Alena PEREPELKINA (RUS) – Yarygin GP No.2 (nr)
18. Yasemin ADAR (TUR) – Poland Open No.1 (16)
19. Guzel MANYUROVA (KAZ) – Spanish GP No.2 (17)
20. OCHIRBAT Burmaa (MGL) – Yarygin No.3 (nr)