#WrestleTokyo Olympic Games Preview: 53kg

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO, Japan (July 23) – Vinesh PHOGAT (IND) got over the physical pain she suffered at the Rio 2016 Olympics long before the emotional scars healed. Five years later, that bitter memory is fueling her quest to become India's first-ever Olympic wrestling gold medalist.

Phogat is the top seed in the women's 53kg division at the Tokyo Olympics, but that hardly lessens the difficulty of the task that lies ahead of her in a field that might be missing the reigning world champion, but little else in terms of quality.

"The journey to Tokyo has been long, bittersweet and difficult at times,” Phogat wrote on social media last week while training in Hungary, as reported in north India's Tribune. "The injury in Rio was easily one of the lowest moments in my career, and even had me questioning whether I would ever be able to wrestle again." 

Arguably Phogat's biggest barrier to Olympic glory will be 2019 world silver medalist Mayu MUKAIDA (JPN), the No. 2 seed and two-time former world champion who has some issues of her own to work out. 

An array of past and present world champions and medalists will also be looking to make their mark on the mat at Makuhari Messe, including fourth-seeded Qianyu PANG (CHN), veteran Sofia MATTSON (SWE), Vanesa KALADZINSKAYA (BLR) and Jacarra WINCHESTER (USA), the reigning world 55kg champion who moved down to the Olympic weight.

Phogat is already making Indian history as the first woman from her country to be appearing in a second Olympics. The Asian nation was a bit late to the women's game, and did not qualify a woman for the Olympics until 2012 and has had just four in total. That number has been doubled in Tokyo. 

At the Rio Olympics, Phogat advanced to the quarterfinals at 48kg, only to suffer a severe knee injury against Yanan SUN (CHN) that required her to be taken off the mat on a stretcher. She returned to competition the following May at the Asian Championships, where she won a silver medal at 55kg.  

The 26-year-old Phogat has accumulated quite a haul of medals on the senior level at the Asian Championships, eight in total, although her gold medal in April in Almaty was the first of that color and came in the absence of the Japanese and Chinese. She also won a gold from the 2018 Asian Games, where she defeated Yuki IRIE (JPN). 

But Mukaida has been a particular thorn in her side in recent years. The two met in the quarterfinals at the 2019 Asian Championships, the first round at the 2019 World Championships and the quarterfinals of the 2020 Asian Championships, with Mukaida winning all three encounters. 

Phogat arrives in Tokyo coming off a confidence-boosting two years of success. She won the 2020 Matteo Pellicone Tournament, which included victories over Pang and Tokyo No. 3 seed Luisa VALVERDE (ECU), and repeated her Rome triumph this year. She also won the Poland Open in June, making her 3-for-3 for 2021. 

Whether she can keep the momentum going in Tokyo against the world's elite remains to be seen, but in a message to her Indian fans, she is aiming to "put a smile on all your faces with my performance on the mat."

The 24-year-old Mukaida has been thrilling Japanese fans since her younger days, when she was being compared to another native of Mie Prefecture in central Japan, the legendary Saori YOSHIDA (JPN). In fact, as she began piling up the titles, including world cadet and Youth Olympic championships, she was dubbed the "second generation Yoshida."

It was a tough reputation to live up to, but the product of the JOC Elite Academy did it with world titles at 55kg in 2016 and 2018. But on several occasions, Mukaida was her own worst enemy, looking like Yoshida until the final five seconds of matches.

That is the biggest knock against Mukaida--her inability at times to finish off what should be easy victories. It happened in three major finals, all at 53kg, over the past four years.

At the 2017 World Championships, Mukaida gave up a 4-point move at the buzzer to Kaladzinskaya and lost 8-6. At the 2019 Asian Championships, she gave up takedown in the final seconds to Yongmi PAK  (PRK) in a 4-3 loss. And at the 2020 Asian Championships, she was leading 8-0 and trying to score a gut wrench that would end the match when Tatyana AKHMETOVA AMANZHOL (KAZ) stepped over and caught her for a victory by fall.

"I do alright in the first half of the match, but I often get attacked by the opponent in the second half and start watching the opponent's movement," Mukaida recently told the Japanese press. "When I lose, my movement stops completely. That's the thing I need to fix the most."

One thing going for Mukaida is that she does not have to contend with Pak, as DPR Korea will not be sending a contingent to the Tokyo Games. Mukaida had a chance to avenge her loss in Xi'an to Pak when the two met in the final of the 2019 World Championships, but instead Pak handed her one of the worse defeats of her career with a 12-1 technical fall.

Mukaida will be on guard not to make similar mistakes at the Tokyo Games. 

China's Pang was a 2019 world bronze medalist along with Phogat, the second straight year that she finished third. She and Phogat have split four matches between them from 2016 to 2020, while Pang is 0-4 in career clashes with Mukaida.

The 31-year-old Mattson she was dealt a one-sided loss by Phogat early at the 2019 World Championships, and earned her fourth trip to the Olympics by winning the European Olympic qualifying tournament. She will be aiming to add to the bronze medal she won at Rio 2016. 

Mattson won world titles in 2006 and 2009, and is a four-time silver medalist, including losing to Yoshida in three straight finals from 2013 to 2015. In January this year, she took the gold at the Grand Prix de France, beating Winchester in the final 7-4. 

Winchester's move down to 53kg coincided with a drop to 50kg by Sarah HILDEBRANDT (USA), who had failed to earn an Olympic place at 53kg at the 2019 worlds. Like Hildebrandt, Winchester secured her ticket to Tokyo for the USA at the Pan American Olympic qualifying tournament, then won the U.S. Olympic trials. Prior to 2020, she had competed anywhere from 55kg to 59kg during her career.

Wrestling at the Tokyo Olympic Games kicks off August 1-7 at the Makuhari Messe with 65kg action beginning on August 5.

No. 1 Vinesh VINESH (IND)
No. 2 Mayu MUKAIDA (JPN)
No. 3 Luisa Elizabeth VALVERDE MELENDRES (ECU)
No. 4 Qianyu PANG (CHN)
Joseph Emilienne ESSOMBE TIAKO (CMR)
Rckaela Maree Ramos AQUINO (GUM)
Roksana Marta ZASINA (POL)
Jacarra Gwenisha WINCHESTER (USA)
Sofia Magdalena MATTSSON (SWE)
Bolortuya BAT OCHIR (MGL)
Andreea Beatrice ANA (ROU)


#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)