#WrestleTokyo Olympic Games Preview: 76kg
Friday, July 23, 2021 - 20:41 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. 2 Aline ROTTER FOCKEN (GER)
No. 3 Hiroe MINAGAWA SUZUKI (JPN)
No. 4 Elmira SYZDYKOVA (KAZ)
Epp MAEE (EST)
Qian ZHOU (CHN)
Samar Amer Ibrahim HAMZA (EGY)
Zaineb SGHAIER (TUN)
Erica Elizabeth WIEBE (CAN)
Aline DA SILVA FERREIRA (BRA)
Natalia VOROBEVA (RUS)
Vasilisa MARZALIUK (BLR)
Aiperi MEDET KYZY (KGZ)
Burmaa OCHIRBAT (MGL)
Alla BELINSKA (UKR)
Yasemin ADAR (TUR)