#WrestleTokyo Olympic Games Preview: 50kg

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO, Japan (July 21) – In one of those wild twists of fate that adds to the appeal of sports, Yanan SUN (CHN) and Mariya STADNIK (AZE) can be indirectly credited with helping Yui SUSAKI (JPN) get to the Tokyo Olympics. 

Now those two and the rest of the field in the women's 50kg division will have to contend with the unintended result of their largesse. Although unseeded, Susaki will be the prohibitive favorite when they all take to the mat at Makuhari Messe on Aug. 6-7.

The story of the emotional roller coaster that Susaki took en route to her Olympic berth is well documented. How Susaki, the two-time world champion, had lost out to rival Yuki IRIE (JPN) for a place on the team to the 2019 World Championships. How Irie, who seemed a shoo-in for a medal in Nur-Sultan that would have automatically clinched an Olympic place for her, was dealt a wild 13-12 loss by Sun in the quarterfinals. How Sun then lost to Stadnik, thus denying Irie a place in the repechange and leaving 50kg as the only weight class in which Japan did not qualify. 

Most significantly, those falling dominoes reopened the door to Tokyo 2020 for Susaki, who avenged the loss to Irie at the national championships, thus earning the chance to qualify Japan at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament. After a year delay and with her fate back in her own hands, she tore apart her opponents in Almaty last April to earn her first trip to the Olympics.

"It was a long, tough road to get on the [Olympic] team," Susaki said in a recent online press conference. "I feel like I've finally reached the start line."

The 33-year-old Stadnik goes into the competition as the top seed, and her 2019 world gold--which came exactly a decade after winning her only other world title--certainly makes her a contender for a fourth Olympic medal. 

But Susaki, who was named one of host country's flag-bearers for the opening ceremony, will firmly be the one to beat at Makuhari Messe, which is located just outside Tokyo in neighboring Chiba Prefecture, about 20 kilometers from her hometown of Matsudo.

The 22-year-old Susaki has lost just three matches in her entire career dating back to junior high school---all to Irie. Globally, she has been untouchable. Among her many laurels were three straight world cadet titles from 2014 to 2016, then a jump straight to senior world champion on 2017, which she repeated in 2018. She added world junior golds in 2018 and 2019. 

Along the way, Susaki has faced and beaten four of the 15 others entered in the Olympic 50kg field. She has defeated Sun three times, most recently at the 2019 World Cup; Stadnik twice, including in the final at the 2018 World Championships; Emilia VUC (ROU) twice; and Oksana LIVACH (UKR) once. And for the record, Susaki is 2-for-2 in meetings with Rio 2016 Olympic champion Eri TOSAKA (JPN).

"After it was decided that Tokyo would host the Olympics, all I could think about was that I wanted to win the gold medal in Tokyo," Susaki said.

Who can stop her?

For Stadnik, Susaki could be the next in a line of Japanese to spoil her dream of an Olympic gold. In the final at London 2012, Stadnik lost to Hitomi OBARA (JPN); four years later in Rio, Tosaka denied her the gold. Stadnik also has a bronze at Beijing 2008. 

This year, Stadnik has prepped for Tokyo with victories at the European Championships and Poland Open. At the latter, her run to the gold included wins over Vuc and Livach. 

China's Sun, despite her fifth-place finish at the 2019 worlds, cannot be discounted. The veteran is a wily, opportunistic wrestler, as she showed in the win over Irie, in which she scored 9 points on a pair of back suplexes that would have seemed right at home in a Greco match. And she gave Stadnik a run for her money in the semifinals, losing a close 6-4 decision.

Sun, 28, won her lone world title at 51kg in 2013, and was a bronze medalist at the Rio Olympics. She also has a world silver from 2012 and a bronze from 2018. 

Vuc goes into Tokyo as the No. 2 seed, helped by her silver medal at the 2019 worlds that only showed she was the best in the weaker half of the draw. She barely got past Valentina ISLAMOVA-BRIK (KAZ), erasing an 0-6 deficit to win 6-6 in the semifinals. In the final, she got hammered 13-0 by Stadnik.

Vuc, the world silver medalist behind Susaki in 2017, has had mixed results leading up to the Olympics this year. 

She beat Islamova-Brik for a bronze medal at the Matteo Pellicone Tournament and placed second at last month's Yasar Dogu, losing in the final to Miglena SELISHKA (BUL), who will be in Tokyo as winner of the European Olympic qualifier. But she also lost to Livach in the quarterfinals at the European Championship, and to Stadnik by technical fall in the first round at the Poland Open. 

No. 3 seed Livach was the 2019 European champion, beating Selishka in the final, and a 2018 world bronze medalist. This year, she placed fifth at the European Championships and lost to Stadnik in the final at the Poland Open.

Islamova-Brik, the No. 4 seed in Tokyo, earned her Olympic ticket by taking a bronze at the 2019 worlds. The Russian-born 29-year-old, who began competing for Kazakhstan in 2018, won the Asian title this year, albeit in the absence of Japanese and Chinese wrestlers, and placed third at the Poland Open. 

The two wild cards in the deck are Sarah HILDEBRANDT (USA) and Stalvira ORSHUSH (RUS), both of whom dropped down from higher weight classes and have had little or no past meetings with the others. 

Hildebrandt was the 2018 world silver medalist at 53kg, but missed out on qualifying in that weight class at the 2019 worlds after losing to Mayu MUKAIDA (JPN) in the quarterfinals and Vinesh PHOGAT (IND) in the repechage.

The 27-year-old dropped down to 50kg and, at the 2020 Matteo Pellicone, won the gold with a 4-2 victory over Vuc in the final. She then earned the Olympic spot for the U.S. at the Pan American Olympic qualifying tournament, which was held in early 2020 just as the coronavirus was beginning to surge. At the U.S. trials, she defeated Victoria ANTHONY (USA) to fill the spot herself.

Orshush replaced Ekaterina POLESHCHUK (RUS), who had secured Russia's Olympic place by winning a bronze medal at the 2019 worlds. Like Hildebrandt, she competed at 53kg in Nur-Sultan, but was dealt an early exit by Luisa VALVERDE (ECU). Orshush had defeated Poleshchuk for the Russian national title at 53kg earlier that year. 

The 29-year-old Orshush was a European bronze medalist at 53kg in 2020 and the European champion at 55kg this year. She was Russia's entry at 53kg at the European Olympic qualifying tournament, but lost in the semifinals.

The last major tournament in which she competed at a weight lower than 53kg was the 2013 World Junior Championships, where she won the 51kg silver medal.

When Susaki thought her Olympic dream had ended and had little motivation to practice, her coach encouraged her by saying that as long as there was "a 0.01 percent chance," she should never give up. 

She may be close to a 100-percent thing when it comes to winning the Olympic gold, but she knows as well as anyone that there is always someone out there ready to beat the odds.

Wrestling at the Tokyo Olympic Games kicks off August 1-7 at the Makuhari Messe with 65kg action beginning on August 6.

No. 1 Mariya STADNIK (AZE)
No. 2 Emilia Alina VUC (ROU)
No. 3 Oksana LIVACH (UKR)
No. 4 Valentina Ivanovna ISLAMOVA BRIK (KAZ)
Stalvira ORSHUSH (RUS)
Yanan SUN (CHN)
Adijat Avorshai IDRIS (NGR)
Miglena Georgieva SELISHKA (BUL)
Namuuntsetseg TSOGT OCHIR (MGL)
Lucia Yamileth YEPEZ GUZMAN (ECU)


#WrestleTokyo Olympic Games Preview: 76kg

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO, Japan (July 23) -- Although the question from a Japanese reporter was clumsily translated as: "You didn't place in Rio, now this time is revenging against your loss...?", Adeline GRAY (USA) got the drift. But the normally outgoing, media-accommodating American only responded curtly, "Next question. We can move on."

Even with an American-record five world titles to her name, the mention of her quarterfinal loss at the 2016 Rio Olympics still manages to hit a nerve. Conversely, it also motivates Gray to rectify the lack of an Olympic gold when she takes the mat at the upcoming Tokyo Games.

Gray, the reigning world champion and No. 1 seed, is the favorite in win the women's 76kg class and finally claim that elusive gold, but she will have to do it in a stacked field just as determined to keep that from happening. 

Looking to deny Gray will be the three other medalists from the 2019 World Championships -- silver medalist Hiroe MINAGAWA (JPN) and bronze-medal winners Aline ROTTER FOCKEN (GER) and Epp MAEE (EST) --as well as defending Olympic champion Erica WIEBE (CAN),  former Olympic gold medalist Natalia VOROBIEVA (RUS), former world champion Yasemin ADAR (TUR)....the list goes on. It's not going to be easy.

Gray secured her ticket to Tokyo with a 4-2 win over Minagawa in the final at the 2019 worlds in Nur-Sultan, giving her a second straight. Her previous world golds had come in 2012 and back-to-back in 2014 and 2015.

Going into the 2016 Olympics, Gray hadn't lost a match in two years dating back to July 2014, when she lost in final of the Golden Grand Prix in Baku to Minagawa, who ended up not making Japan's team to Rio. 

But then the impossible happened in Rio. In the quarterfinals, Gray admittedly wrestled too conservatively and gave up a late takedown to come out on the short end of a 4-1 decision to Vasilisa MARZALIUK (BLR), an opponent she had handily beaten a number of times. 

"I haven’t had a loss in a long time," Gray was quoted as saying at the time. "I don’t even know what this is supposed to feel like."

Fast forward five years and Gray is again at the top of the field, now 30 years old and wiser. Soon after the 2019 worlds, she defeated Minagawa again at the World Cup, but knows she can't take the No. 2 seed for granted.

"I'm glad that Minagawa and I are on the separate sides of the bracket," Gray said during a recent interview with the Japanese media at the U.S. team base in central Japan. "We'll meet in the final hopefully.

"We wrestled in the final at the last world championships, and it was awesome to wrestle against Japan. Such a legacy within wrestling, especially women's wrestling, and it would be an honor to compete with her on home soil. Hopefully I'll come out on top."

The fact that there will be no spectators at the competition in Makuhari Messe somewhat nullifies the homecourt advantage for Minagawa. But Gray would certainly have welcomed even a partisan crowd.

"I was really looking forward to spectators," she said. "Japan always brings great crowds and great energy, and always a very respectful crowd as well. So I was looking forward to a kind of an enjoyment of sport.

"But I'm still happy that we get to have it on TV, and have the event, and I know people will be cheering from home. It will be just as exciting, it just won't have the same energy and buzz in the stadium."

Following the World Cup, Gray's pre-Olympic outings were limited to last two Pan American Championships, where she lost to Justine DI STASIO (CAN) in the 2020 final and won the tournament in 2021. 

Di Stasio will not be in Tokyo after being beaten out by Wiebe at the Canadian trials to compete at the Pan American Olympic qualifier, which Wiebe won to keep alive her hopes of defending her Olympic crown.

Wiebe's bid to qualify for Tokyo at the 2019 worlds ended with a 4-3 loss in the quarterfinals to Maee. The 2018 world bronze medalist came back to triumph at the 2020 Matteo Pellicone tournament in a field that included no less than nine other wrestlers who will be in Tokyo. 

The 32-year-old Wiebe defended her Matteo crown this year, and also took a bronze at the Poland Open, where she lost 1-1 in the semifinals to Rotter Focken.

Minagawa won her third career gold at the Asian Championships in 2020, then used the year delay of the Tokyo Games to take care of an old injury, undergoing surgery on her right knee in June 2020. 

During the pandemic, she would spar with her husband, a former wrestler, in their garden to stay in shape and worked on building strength. "Compared to a year ago, I feel I've gained power," Minagawa said.

Minagawa is one example of the rare athlete who blooms late in their career. She did not win the first of her three consecutive world medals from 2017-19 until she was 30, and she will be making her Olympic debut at the matronly age of 33. 

According to the JWF website, Minagawa had become disappointed with her lack of progress at one point and told her family in 2016 that she was going to retire. That took her parents by surprise. They had obtained passports for the first time in their lives for the express purpose of watching her at the 2015 World Championships in Las Vegas, which she ended up missing due to injury. 

A little while later, Minagawa suggested that since they got the passports anyway, maybe they all could take a vacation to Hawaii.  Nothing doing, her father said, "We got these passports to go watch you."

That flipped a switch in Minagawa, as her father had never been the demanding type of parent when it came to her wrestling. She became further motivated when her father said: "The best thing is to give everything you've got and win. The next best thing is to give everything you've got and lose."

Vorobieva, 30, won the gold medal at 72kg at the 2012 London Olympics, then added a silver four years later in Rio at 68kg, losing in the final to Sara DOSHO (JPN).  

After taking three years off for motherhood, she returned in 2019 and won a second world title, but in the non-Olympic weight of 72kg. She secured her place at a third Olympics by moving up to 76kg and winning the European Olympic qualifying tournament. 

This year, Vorobieva placed second to Epp at the European Championships, then finished third at the Poland Open after losing to Epp again in the quarterfinals. She beat Tokyo-bound Aiperi MEDET KYZY (KGZ) for the bronze.

One wrestler who may not be regarded as a medal contender but deserves attention is Burmaa OCHIRBAT (MGL). She stands out not because she will be competing in her third Olympics, but because of which Olympics she has appeared in. 

The 39-year-old Ochirbat is one of only two wrestlers from among the 48 who took part when women's wrestling made its Olympic debut with four weight classes at the 2004 Athens Games who were still active in 2020. 

Ochirbat, who also appeared at the 2012 London Olympics, placed second to Medet Kyzy at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament to earn a ticket to her Tokyo.

A three-time world medalist with a silver in 2009 and bronzes in 2013 and 2014, Ochirbat had left the sport for three years after failing to qualify for Rio 2016. At the 2019 World Championships, she lost her opening match to Qian ZHOU (CHN). 

For the record, the other Athens alumnus still going in 2020 was Svetlana SAENKO (MDA), who appeared at the European Championships that year. In Athens, Saenko finished fourth and Ochirbat 10th.

No. 1 Adeline Maria GRAY (USA)
No. 4 Elmira SYZDYKOVA (KAZ)
Samar Amer Ibrahim HAMZA (EGY)
Erica Elizabeth WIEBE (CAN)
Yasemin ADAR (TUR)