Kawai Ready to Lead Japan at Women's World Cup

By Ken Marantz

NARITA, Japan (November 13) --- With an Olympic gold and three world titles already under her belt, it seems hard to believe that Risako KAWAI is only approaching her 25th birthday. But when it comes to the team that Japan will send out when it hosts the Women’s World Cup, she can be considered one of the grand old ladies of the squad.

Kawai and younger sister Yukako are among four medalists from the senior World Championships named to a relatively young Japanese team, which includes all 10 medalists---including seven champions---from the recently concluded U23 World Championships in Budapest.

“We will be going for a fifth straight title,” Risako Kawai said at a recent press conference to announce the team in Tokyo. “I took on the challenge of captain of the team at the World Championships. My task at this World Cup will also be to lead us to victory.”

Kawai will turn 25 on Nov. 21---four days after she hopes to be celebrating Japan’s 17th title overall in the six-nation tournament to be held in Narita, the city east of Tokyo best known for its international airport.

“For me personally, this is my third World Cup that our country is hosting,” said Kawai, who will compete at the Olympic weight class of 57kg. “I will do everything I can to bring the Japan team a 17th title overall and achieve a fifth straight.”

Also named to the 20-woman squad (two in each weight class) were world silver medalist Hiroe MINAGAWA at 76kg and bronze medalists Yukako KAWAI at 62kg and Masako FURUICHI, who finished third at 72kg in Nur-Sultan but has dropped down to 68kg. At 32, only Minagawa is older than Risako Kawai. 

The squad also features a pair of former world champions in Yui SUSAKI at 50kg and Haruna OKUNO at 53kg, both of whom lost in wrestle-offs for places on the team to Nur-Sultan but will surely bring added firepower to the hosts.

Haruna OKUNO, a 2019 U23 world champion, will wrestle at 53kg. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

All but three of the 20 wrestlers are either collegians or high schoolers. Eight are from powerhouse Shigakkan University, including Yukako Kawai, Okuno and twin sisters Naruha and Yasuha MATSUYUKI, who are entered at 68kg and 76kg, respectively. 

Okuno was one of Japan’s seven women gold medalists at the U23 World Championships, where the country also hauled in two silvers and a bronze.  

“At the U23, the women won titles in seven weight classes. It’s good momentum to bring to the World Cup,” national team technical director Shigeki Nishiguchi said. “This time, a number of wrestlers firmly expressed an interest in participating. I feel like they want to raise their level one or two steps at the World Cup.”

In taking a leadership role, Kawai said she was inspired by the performance of Japan’s captain at the recent Rugby World Cup, New Zealand-born Michael Leitch, whose efforts to get the team to gel resulted in a stunning run by the host country into the quarterfinals for the first time ever. 

“The most important thing in a team event is to come together as one,” Kawai said. “Recently, I have been thinking about how to deal with the younger wrestlers. I heard that Leitch handed out gum to his teammates. Maybe I should try that,” she added with a laugh.

With Japan grouped together with Asian rival China and Ukraine, Kawai will likely face a rematch of the gold medal match from Nur-Sultan against RONG Ningning (CHN), whom she beat 9-6. 

“At this year’s world championships, I met the Chinese wrestler in the final,” Kawai said. “Still, every country is going to send out a strong wrestler. For every match, I fight with the assumption I can win.” 

Noticeably absent are Mayu MUKAIDA, who finished second at 53kg in Nur-Sultan, and Rio 2016 gold medalist Sara DOSHO, who finished fifth at 68kg. It was at the 2018 World Cup that Dosho suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery and kept her out of that year's World Championships. 

Japan officials said that Mukaida, also a Shigakkan student, was involved in student-teaching and could not adequately train for the World Cup. As for Dosho, she needs a victory at the All-Japan Championships in December to clinch her place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and, while her shoulder has healed, did not want to take any chances. 

The drop of both Furuichi and Naruha Matsuyuki from 72kg to 68kg appears to indicate they will challenge Dosho for the Tokyo 2020 spot that she earned in that weight class with her fifth place in Nur-Sultan. Had Dosho won a medal, she would have clinched the berth outright; instead, she has to wait for the All-Japan tournament.  

High schooler Yuzuka INAGAKI (JPN) will make her World Cup debut, where she'll wrestle at 59kg. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

The high schoolers on the squad are a pair of current world junior champions, Yuzuka INAGAKI at 59kg and Yuka KAGAMI at 72kg, both of whom medaled at higher weights in Budapest.

Inagaki was the top seed at 59kg at the senior World Championships, but finished out of the medals after losing in the quarterfinals to Pooja DHANDA (IND)---although she bounced back by taking the 62kg gold at the U23 tournament. Kagami finished second at 76kg in Budapest. 

One other noticeable absence from the team is Yuki IRIE, who defeated two-time world champion Susaki in the national team playoffs for the 50kg spot in Nur-Sultan. She not only finished there without a medal, but without an Olympic berth for Japan after suffering a heartbreaking 13-12 loss to SUN Yanan (CHN) in the quarterfinals.

A wrist injury has kept Irie from appearing at a second straight World Cup, Japan officials said. She was a member of the Japan team that won the title last year in the Japanese city of Takasaki. Japan took the trophy with a 6-4 victory in the final over China---a triumph sparked by Irie's victory by fall over Sun in the opening match. 

Japan's other medalist in Nur-Sultan, Irie's younger sister Nanami, who took the silver medal at 55kg, will also not be competing. 

Two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI (JPN) returns to Japan's senior-level lineup for the first time since the 2018 World Championships. (Photo: Gabor Martin)

With the door to the Olympics reopened for Susaki, the Waseda University student will certainly look to use the World Cup as preparation for another possible showdown with Irie at the All-Japan Championships, where she can earn the right to enter the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in March. 

Susaki is joined on the Japan team at 50kg by Kika KAGATA, who added the U23 world title to the junior crown she previously held, while Ibuki TAMURA fills the other 53kg slot with Okuno.

The other world U23 gold medalists on the squad are Sae NANJO (57kg), Yumeka TANABE (59kg) and Misuzu ENOMOTO (65kg), while silver medalist Saki IGARASHI (55kg) and bronze medalist Mei SHINDO (72kg) are also on the roster. 

Igarashi, Nanjo and 2018 world junior champion Miwa MORIKAWA (62kg) were all members of last year's championship team. 

The others on the team are Akie HANAI (55kg) and Naomi RUIKE (65kg). 

While the World Cup is not as high profile as its individual cousins, it can produce memorable moments. Just ask Saori YOSHIDA. The three-time Olympic and 10-time world champion suffered only three losses in her career to non-Japanese opponents---and two of them came at a World Cup. 

The first was to Marcie VAN DUSEN (USA) in early 2008 in Taiyuan, China, which became her first loss in any competition dating back to December 2001. The second also came at pre-Olympic World Cup, when she was beaten by Valeria ZHOLOBOVA (RUS) in 2012 in the final in Tokyo. 

Even though Japan defeated Russia for the title, the image of Yoshida crying on the podium as the team received its gold medals remains vivid. 

In addition to Japan, China and the United States are the only countries to have walked off with the World Cup trophy. China has captured the title six times, including five in a row between 2007 and 2011, while the U.S. won its lone title in 2003. 

Japan's Team
50kg - Yui SUSAKI, Kika KAGATA
53kg - Haruna OKUNO, Ibuki TAMURA
55kg - Saki IGARASHI, Akie HANAI
57kg - Risako KAWAI, Sae NANJO
59kg - Yuzuka INAGAKI, Yumeka TANABE
62kg - Yukako KAWAI, Miwa MORIKAWA
65kg - Misuzu ENOMOTO, Naomi RUIKE
68kg - Masako FURUICHI, Naruha MATSUYUKI
72kg - Mei SHINDO, Yuka KAGAMI
76kg - Hiroe MINAGAWA, Yasuha MATSUYUKI


Japan Notches 5th Straight Title as Lesser Knowns Also Step up in Final Against U.S.

By Ken Marantz

NARITA, Japan (Nov. 17)---Leading up to the final, Japan seemed to show a sign of vulnerability in the upper weights that the United States was hoping to exploit. But with the title on the line, the hosts pretty much plugged the holes. 

Unheralded Naomi RUIKE (JPN) came up big at 65kg, chalking up the victory that clinched a fifth straight title for Japan at the Women’s World Cup with a 7-3 win over the United States at Nakadai Sports Park Gym in Narita.

A day after the Japanese suffered losses in the last four weight classes in a 6-4 win over China, Ruike halted the trend by scoring two late takedowns in a 5-1 win over Forrest MOLINARI (USA).

“I really felt [the pressure], but I could hear the support from everyone on my team,” Ruike said. “That made me fight harder.”

As expected, the Japanese stormed out with five wins in the first six matches--- including four by technical falls to enhance their chances in a possible tiebreaking situation---but any hopes of a late American comeback ended with Ruike’s win.

Ruike was trailing 1-1 in the second period on last-point criteria with Molinari, who finished fifth at the World Championships, but went ahead when she caught a heel and reeled it in for a takedown. In the waning seconds, she added 2 more points when she fought off a counter crotch lift and sent Molinari to her back.

“I thought I had no choice but to attack,” said Ruike, whose father was a doctor in the American military stationed in Japan and mother is Japanese (she uses her mother’s family name). “Without even thinking, I went for it. My desire to win was strong and that led to getting the points.”

Ruike, the silver medalist at the Asian Championships, was among the many collegians on a relatively young Japanese squad, which also included two high schoolers---both of whom won matches in the final. 

Adeline GRAY (USA) stuck Hiroe MINAGAWA (JPN) in a rematch of the 76kg world finals from Nur-Sultan. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

All three American wins came from their reigning world champions, which was no surprise, including a victory by fall by Adeline GRAY (USA) in a rematch of the 76kg final at Nur-Sultan, where she set an American record by winning a fifth world gold.

That their teammates couldn’t break through in any of the other weight classes only further confirmed that Japan could never be taken lightly, Gray said.

 “I really felt that going into this final that we had a chance to win,” Gray said. “It’s about momentum in these dual matches. You start to lose a couple of matches, you start to have a couple of moments and points go the wrong way. Japan’s great, and it’s hard to compete with greatness.”

For the Americans, it marks another year since they won their lone World Cup title in 2003.  

“It was a bummer, that’s how I feel about it,” Gray said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been on the top of that podium, and I’ve almost memorized the Japanese national anthem by now.”

Yui SUSAKI (JPN) smiles after kicking off the gold-medal dual with a 10-0 win over Whitney CONDER (USA). (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Former world champion Yui SUSAKI (JPN), who is preparing for the All Japan Championships in December to start a run at making the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, got the juggernaut going with a 10-0 technical fall at 50kg over Whitney CONDER (USA).

Haruna OKUNO (JPN) followed suit with her own 10-0 technical fall over Sarah HILDEBRANDT (USA) in a replay of the 2018 final at the World Championships in Budapest. 

World champion Jacarra WINCHESTER (USA) shrugged off her shocking loss the day before in the U.S. victory over Mongolia by forging out a 5-1 win over Akie HANAI (JPN) at 55kg.

That was just a bump in the road for Japan, which then got back-to-back technical falls from three-time world champion and Rio 2016 gold medalist Risako KAWAI (JPN) and high schooler and world junior champion Yuzuka INAGAKI (JPN).

Kawai took 4:20 to finish up an 11-0 win over Kelsey CAMPBELL (USA) at 57kg, while Inagaki needed two seconds less for her 10-0 rout of Desiree ZAVALA (USA) at 59kg.

“Everyone came together as one,” said Kawai, who served as team captain. “With this being the last match, teammates who had a match would cheer on the ones after them, and we could really hear the voices of those who didn’t have matches.”

Yukako KAWAI (JPN) looks to finish a single leg on junior and U23 world silver medalist, Macey KILTY (USA). Kawai won the match, 7-0. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Kawai’s younger sister Yukako, the world silver medalist at 62kg, was hardly challenged in posting a 7-0 win over Macey KILTY (USA), setting the stage for Ruike, a teammate at powerhouse Shigakkan University, to seal Japan’s 11th title in the 18-year history of the event.

With the team title decided, newly crowned world champion Tamyra MENSAH-STOCK (USA) took the opportunity to put on an exhibition of solid wrestling fundamentals in beating Naruha MATSUYUKI (JPN), 8-1, at 68kg.

At 72kg, world junior champion and U-23 silver medalist Yuka KAGAMI (JPN), who said she took personal the talk of Japan being understrength in the heavier weights, scored a late 2-point exposure off a single-leg attempt to beat Victoria FRANCIS (USA), 3-1.

Gray then capped the tournament with a late fall of Hiroe MINAGAWA (JPN), although it was touch-and-go for most of the match between the Nur-Sultan finalists. 

Gray scored on a stepout in the first period, but fell behind on criteria when she was forced out by Minagawa midway through the second.

“She keeps it close,” Gray said of Minagawa, who won her third career world medal in Nur-Sultan. “That’s one of the talents that Japan has, is that they’re always keeping matches close.

The five-time world champion then got the opening she needed, applying a whizzer and stepping over to put the Japanese on her back for a fall in 5:04.

“I’m just a little bigger and stronger than her, so once I get into the right position, she really can’t hang with me in those ‘Big Mama’ moves,” she said. 

“It’s about her ability to keep that distance and keep attacking and keep me at bay. It makes it so that I have to kick it into that next gear and force her to make a mistake, and it’s hard to make Japan make a mistake.” 

FENG Zhou (CHN) celebrates after pinning ENKHSAIKHAN Delgermaa (MGL) in their battle at 68kg. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

China makes quick work of Mongolia for bronze medal
China, the runner-up the past two years, denied Mongolia a fourth straight bronze medal by storming to a 7-3 victory in the third-place playoff, in which seven of the 10 matches were decided by fall or technical fall.

After FENG Zhou (CHN) put the Chinese ahead 5-3 with a victory by fall at 68kg, WANG Juan (CHN) clinched the deal by topping Davaanasan ENKH AMAR (MGL), 9-2, at 72kg.

“I didn’t feel so much pressure,” Wang said. “My teammates before me wrestled well, which brought me so much confidence.”

Wang, who finished fifth at the 2018 World Championships, took a proactive approach as she held a 5-2 lead going into the final minute. Instead of protecting the advantage, she added to it with a takedown and gut wrench.

“When I have a chance, I continue to try for points,” Wang said.

LEI Chun (CHN), winner of the recent Tokyo 2020 test event who was making her first appearance of the tournament, started China off with a 10-0 technical fall at 50kg, which world bronze medalist PANG Qianyu (CHN) matched by the same score at 53kg.

At 55kg, Bolortuya BAT OCHIR (MGL), who knocked off both Winchester and her fellow world bronze medalist in the group matches, chalked up a third win by outlasting CHEN Jiawei (CHN), 12-10

FENG Yongxin (CHN) gave the Chinese another technical fall victory at 57kg, and ZHANG Qi (CHN) followed with an 8-2 win over world bronze medalist Shoovdor BAATARJAV (MGL).

A technical fall by Gantuya ENKHBAT (MGL) at 62kg and a fall by Purevsuren ULZIISAIKHAN (MGL) at 65kg keep Mongolia’s hopes alive, but Zhou put the pressure on with her victory by fall. 

After Wang’s victory, QIANDEGENCHAGAN Qiandegenchagan (CHN) capped the dual in her lone match of the tournament by taking just 23 seconds to win by fall over Ariunjargal GANBAT (MGL) at 76kg.

Alla BELINSKA (UKR) clinched the dual for Ukraine with a fall over Russia's Evgeniia ZAKHARCHENKO. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Ukraine pulls surprise, overcomes Russia for 5th place
In an entertaining clash for fifth place, Ukraine pulled off a surprising victory over Russia, defeating its giant neighbor on classification points after the match ended tied 5-5.

It seemed fitting that Alla BELINSKA (UKR), who had been Ukraine’s lone shining star in the competition, clinched the victory for her side when she scored a victory by fall over Evgeniia ZAKHARCHENKO (RUS) at 72kg.

Belinska, the only Ukrainian to post a win against Japan and China in the group matches on Saturday, ended the tournament undefeated when, with her leg being held in the air, she back-tripped Zakharchenko to the mat, applied a headlock and finished her off at 1:34. 

That gave Ukraine a 5-4 lead, but with a fall and a injury forfeit already on the board, her pin assured that Ukraine could not be overcome, regardless of the outcome of the 76kg bout. 

Rio 2016 bronze medalist Ektarina BUKINA (RUS) won the final match by technical fall, but that still left Russia on the short end of a 25-19 score on classification points.

“The coach said there must be a fall, and I have to do what the coach says,” Belinska said with a smile, adding it was satisfying to defeat the powerful Russians. “On our continent, this is a fight on principle. Russia is a very good team. We are a young team, but we wanted to win.”

Earlier, Solomiia VYNNYK (UKR) added to the Ukraine tally at 53kg with one of the wilder victories of the tournament, prevailing in a 16-14 shootout with Milana DADASHEVA (RUS).

The Russian was leading 11-10 when Vynnyk went ahead with a 4-point throw, then added a 2-point roll. Dadasheva cut the gap over the final minute, but came up short in the 30-point match.


50kg: Yui SUSAKI (JPN) df. Whitney CONDER (USA) by TF, 10-0, 3:17
53kg: Haruna OKUNO (JPN) df. Sarah HILDEBRANDT (USA) by TF, 10-0, 5:32
55kg: Jacarra WINCHESTER (USA) df. Akie HANAI (JPN), 5-1
57kg: Risako KAWAI (JPN) df. Kelsey CAMPBELL (USA) by TF, 11-0, 4:10
59kg: Yuzuka INAGAKI (JPN) df. Desiree ZAVALA (USA) by TF, 10-0, 4:12
62kg: Yukako KAWAI (JPN) df. Macey KILTY (USA), 7-0
65kg: Naomi RUIKE (JPN) df. Forrest MOLINARI (USA), 5-1
68kg: Tamyra MENSAH-STOCK (USA) df. Naruha MATSUYUKI (JPN), 8-1
72kg: Yuka KAGAMI (JPN) df. Victoria FRANCIS (USA), 3-1
76kg: Adeline GRAY (USA) df. Hiroe MINAGAWA (JPN) by Fall, 5:04 (3-1) 

3rd-Place Playoff

50kg: LEI Chun (CHN) df. Namuuntsetseg TSOGT OCHIR (MGL) by TF, 10-0, 1:41
53kg: PANG Qianyu (CHN) df. Anudari NANDINTSETSEG (MGL) by TF, 10-0, 5:52
55kg: Bolortuya BAT OCHIR (MGL) df. CHEN Jiawei (CHN), 12-10
57kg: FENG Yongxin (CHN) df. Battsetseg ALTANTSETSEG (MGL) by TF, 10-0, :55
59kg: ZHANG Qi (CHN) df. Shoovdor BAATARJAV (MGL), 8-2
62kg: Gantuya ENKHBAT (MGL) df. KANG Juan (CHN) by TF, 12-2, 2:15 
65kg: Purevsuren ULZIISAIKHAN (MGL) df. WU Yaru (CHN) by Fall, 2:03 (10-4) 
68kg: ZHOU Feng (CHN) df. Delgermaa ENKHSAIKHAN (MGL) by Fall, 1:15 (8-0)
72kg: WANG Juan (CHN) df. Davaanasan ENKH AMAR (MGL), 9-2
76kg: QIANDEGENCHAGAN Qiandegenchagan (CHN) df. Ariunjargal GANBAT (MGL) by Fall, :23 (4-0)

5th-Place Playoff

(Ukraine wins on classification points, 25-19)
50kg: Mariia VYNNYK (UKR) df. Daria LEKSINA (RUS), 8-7
53kg: Solomiia VYNNYK (UKR) df. Milana DADASHEVA (RUS), 16-14
55kg: Olga KHOROSHAVTSEVA (RUS) df. Anastasiya KRAVCHENKO (UKR) by TF, 13-2, 2:36 
57kg: Olena KREMZER (UKR) df. Marina SIMONYAN (RUS) by Fall, 2:43 (6-3)
59kg: Liubov OVCHAROVA (RUS) df. Sofiia BODNAR (UKR), 6-1 
62kg: Tetiana RIZHKO (UKR) df. Uliana TUKURENOVA (RUS) by Forf.
65kg: Natalia FEDOSEEVA (RUS) df. Oksana CHUDYK (UKR), 5-3 
68kg: Anastasiia BRATCHIKOVA (RUS) df. Alina RUDNYSTSKA LEVYTSKA (UKR), 4-1 
72kg: Alla BELINSKA (UKR) df. Evgeniia ZAKHARCHENKO (RUS) by Fall, 1:34 (4-0)
76kg: Ekaterina BUKINA (RUS) df. Romana VOVCHAK (UKR) by TF, 10-0, 3:55