Y is for Yoshida

As Saori Yoshida, thirteen-time world champion and triple gold medalist in women’s wrestling, walks towards the microphones to announce to the press that she is retiring, her shadow looms large. Larger than she is, the shadow seems a perfect metaphor, a thing that will always tower over her, no matter what she achieves.

January 2019, Saori Yoshida announces her retirement. Photo by Toshiki Miyama.

Yoshida was the face of women’s wrestling—Japanese wrestling, Japanese SPORT—a bona fide celebrity in every possible way. Daughter of a national champion who startled wrestling at age three. A national Japanese hero who, in Brazil on August 2016, was expected to tie the existing Olympic record of four consecutive gold medals for the same event. A drone winning-machine who could be relied on to add to the Japanese medal tally. A national disgrace when she was upset in the finals by the unheralded Helen Maroulis of Rockville, Maryland.

With 40 seconds left, Yoshida dives in like an eel in a way that she has not, all day long… but Maroulis dances to the side…They are waltzing in a weird kind of circle. Until the buzzer sounds. Time seems to stand still; there is a pause, a silence across the arena… Maroulis sinks on her knees and clasps her hands together one last time in prayer, in benediction, in emotion, in whatever her body can think of to do…

From my story, “Rulon with Cornrows” about the Yoshida-Maroulis match.

Yoshida hadn’t lost a match in four years. The last time the two had met, Maroulis ended with a broken arm.

The buzzer sounds, Rio 206. Photo by Mark Reis of the Colorado Gazette.

What’s it like to stop being a legend? When the failure to win, when your achievement of a silver medal isn’t even mentioned in your achievements? You’re not a four-time medalist, but a three-time winner who lost. Your story is no longer your record of being undefeated for 119 matches; your story is how you were beaten.

Yoshida’s loss, her fall from grace, was treated as if Japan had lost some sort of war. Every article mentioned, after the fact, that all of Japan was riding on her 34-year-old shoulders. Every article mentioned her father, who had raised her to wrestle and passed away right before the 2014 World Championships. Daughter and team captain Saori would honor his memory in Rio. She was a shoe-in, a locked-in favorite. She had to win the gold for Japan and for Dad.

The loss was a shock. Western fans labeled her crybaby, a poor sport. The Japanese press kept asking if she would stay until Tokyo. Their question pointed to the seeds of the original plan, mapped out by Yoshida, Coach Sakae, and everyone in her country. She’d win in Rio, then vie for a record fifth gold, at home, Tokyo 2020. Wouldn’t that be perfect?

Yoshida is distraught. She bursts into tears, prostrate on the mat, and the weight of this match on her shoulders becomes oh so evident. … Both women are now sobbing, both sets of shoulders heaving. Maroulis is covering her open mouth with both hands. As Yoshida gets up to let the referee raise her opponent’s arm, the American embraces her heavily and genuinely. There is crying in wrestling. The female referee also embraces Yoshida briefly, a gesture of comfort that might seem odd in another match but makes perfect sense here.

Maroulis finishes shaking hands with the coaches and judges, then goes to find her family in the stands. Yoshida faces a wall of Japanese press with cameras.

From my story, “Rulon with Cornrows” about the Yoshida-Maroulis match.

Three years later, as Yoshida announces her retirement in front of another Japanese wall of cameras, she is quiet and firm. She says she has realized that she has achieved all that was possible for her. Time to let others have a chance. But the question comes: What was your most memorable wrestling moment? She can’t help it. Her most memorable moment, she says, was in Rio, in the finals. When she finally knew what it felt like to lose.

London: Carrying Coach Dad, Carrying the Country

On August 9, 2012, the women’s wrestling finals for the 55 kg lightweight category is held at the cavernous London ExCel center. Canadian Tonya Verbeek enters through the tunnel with a smile on her face. She will face Saori Yoshida for the second time in the finals, having lost the inaugural gold medal to her in Athens. After eight years of work, she has worked her way back onto the mat with a plan for success. Thirty-year-old Yoshida behind her looks grim, more like a person about to receive bad medical news than one about to fight for a medal. Unlike her wins in earlier Games, where she won with takedown pins or Superiority, Yoshida’s successes in London have been three modest victories of 2-0.

The Japanese champion has become the master of defense beating offense. Her strategy is to wait for the right angle, a lapse in concentration, a shift off the leading foot, which lets her grab a leg. Unless the other person attacks first or is strong enough to pull away on one foot, the leg attack will easily turn into a few points. A few points is enough.

Yoshida’s longtime coach, Kazuhito Saki, is with her as is her father, Team Japan’s wrestling coach, the venerable Eikatsu Yoshida. With two gold medals under her belt, she has the chance to win three gold medals, which would be unprecedented. In recognition of her accomplishments to date, she carried the flag in London’s Opening Ceremony, which puts extra pressure on her to win here.

Verbeek and Yoshida step to the mat and, as time starts, immediately lean together and start batting at each other, trying to gain a grip or grab an arm. As they twitch and turn, their speed is evident, but neither puts it on display. Seconds tick away but both continue to circle, swat, and feint. Verbeek leans a little backward in a turn, and Yoshida dives in to grab her front knee. She levers Verbeek out of the circle for a point.

Yoshida carrying Team Japan Coach, her father, after winning in London. Coach Yoshida died in 2014. Photo by Daiju Kitamura.

At the beginning of the second period, Verbeek’s smile is gone. The plan to attack hasn’t worked at all. Yoshida is so solid to the ground, her hips so square, that she doesn’t budge. Again, a slight shift off the front foot, and Yoshida grabs Verbeek’s knee. They both fall to the ground. The Canadians protest the loss of another point but lose the challenge. At 3-0, the match is over. In a playful mirror image of prior Games, Yoshida lifts her father onto her shoulders briefly. Tears flow, as they often do in Japanese wrestling.

Tonya Verbeek, with two silvers and a bronze from her three Olympics, is officially the most decorated Canadian wrestler of all time.

Beijing: Crying on the Coach’s Shoulders

Saori Yoshida has lost only one wrestling match in ten years, and that was to an American at these Games who does not make it to the round of eight. The 2008 Olympic final on August 16 is against an upstart, 18-year-old Xu Li of China. This is Beijing, though. Li will have the crowd on her side and has wrestled with flair and flash. Yoshida has focused strongly on technique in the years since her win in Athens. It has been hard to stay at her peak, world championship after world championship. It was a loss in concentration when Marcie van Dusen beat her a few months earlier. That was good for her, a wake-up call. She already met her longtime rival, Tonya Verbeek, in the semi-finals and defeated her soundly, again.

As the gold medal match begins, Li and Yoshida seem evenly matched. They are nearly the same height, almost mirror images in stature, haircut, stance. Li is quick on her feet, but also cautious. Penalties for passivity could come into play, and perhaps both are thinking about it as they circle. Yoshida shoots, a dive to grab the leg, but Li dances out of the way. Wrestling is like mongoose and cobra, both opponents trying to dart forward without losing their balance.

Suddenly, Yoshida twists left and, sure enough, snags a leg. In Japan, wrestlers—especially female wrestlers—are recruited out of judo, and now it is patently obvious why. Wrestling is a dance of balance. To lose balance is worse than to be weak. No matter how strong you are, it is nearly impossible to recover when you are on one leg. It was fine for The Karate Kid, but no one was pulling on his leg while he attacked. Yoshida twists Li down for two points.

Yoshida wins in Beijing. Photo by Marcello Farina.

At the break, Li’s coaches are gesturing, with passion, I told you not to… This conversation on the opposing side of the match to Yoshida has been playing out for years. Li nods, and the second period starts. They feint and bat at each other, but Yoshida wastes no time. Same leg, same move to grab, only Yoshida manages to flip Li over. Desperately trying to raise her shoulders, Li doesn’t have the experience to twist out of it. Yoshida is awarded a Fall, and the referee raises her arm for gold medal number two.

Yoshida begins running in circles, surprisingly spry all of a sudden for 26-year old. She scampers over to coach. As if choreographed, up she goes on his shoulders as they run together. Only now, both are crying with joy and with relief. Suddenly, the weight of four years passing rolls down Yoshida’s cheeks. It is a reminder that the Olympic four-year interval is a long time.

Athens: Now I Have All the Medals

Women’s wrestling has at last come to Athens on August 23, 2004. It’s taken 3000 years to get here, and these strong women are having a party. All of the wrestlers carry a little extra swagger. 22-year-old Saori Yoshida is no exception, and she seems almost jaunty as she bounces into the ring to face Canadian Tonya Verbeek.

Yoshida is no stranger to winning. Already a two-time world champion, she’s been wrestling and winning under her coach and father’s eye for almost two decades. Japanese wrestlers focus on technique and angles rather than the flash of the “pin” or the “throw.” A quick grab is a solid winning strategy, and Yoshida has it down.

She is exceptionally good at grabbing the leg, and she goes after Verbeek’s multiple times. Yoshida lays Verbeek out, twice, three times, and at the fifth time, with Yoshida ahead 6-0, time runs out. The first Japanese gold medalist in women’s wrestling bounds up from the mat, fists in the air. Then, she remembers to bow with courtesy to Verbeek, Verbeek’s coach, and referee. Verbeek appears happy to have Canada’s first wrestling medal.

Yoshida celebrates Japan’s first gold in women’s wrestling, August 2004. Photo by Masahiro Kawata.

Yoshida demonstrates that she has springs for legs, by bounding in a victory circle, and whips off a couple of handsprings for good measure.

Asked later about her thrill at this historic gold medal win, she bubbles, “The [Olympic] gold medal was the only thing I didn’t have. But now I have all the medals.”

A Streak of Unbroken Yellow Circles

In January 2020, the plane from Athens touches down on the tarmac in Tokyo. Saori Yoshida and three-time judo medalist Tadahiro Nomura are given the honor to carry the torch from the plane. Japan seems to have forgiven her, though she may not yet have forgiven herself. Anyone who looks at Yoshida’s Wikipedia entry knows that it requires a lot of scrolling, down a long list of unbroken yellow circles after the single silver, all the gold medals and world championships.

Perhaps there is something addictive about the Games that makes them cast a permanent shadow on the athletes. When you are young, it is a dream to compete, to just be there on that world stage. If you can compete, then maybe a medal; you transform from Olympian to medalist. But the gold beckons, so maybe you come back, or strive for the ultimate, to have all the medals. Then, could you last it out another cycle? A back-to-back… a threepeat… a record-setting? No matter how many wins, there must be some feeling that makes those with that much competitive drive to always hunger for more. To always sense regret in the shadows.

In time, Saori Yoshida may turn from regret to remembering what came before.

Author’s Note: For this penultimate A to Z Challenge Olympic post, I couldn’t help but reflect on the story I wrote, “Rulon with Cornrows.” The echoes to a more well-known match, when American Rulon Gardner beat Russian Aleksander Karelin, were all over Helen Maroulis’ upset of the Japanese legend. Karelin, famously, took off his wrestling shoes and retired on the spot. We love it when the underdog wins. We don’t talk much about what it’s like for the legend. It seemed like the perfect “challenge” to tell Yoshida’s story, moreover, to reflect on how different it must have felt, each time. Tomorrow: one final Olympic post.

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