Every day there are those who strive to move forward: With an Olympic year finally upon us, siblings ABE Uta and ABE Hifumi look ahead to a historic summer of sport on home soil.
“The 25 of July will be the day that my brother and I shine,” said -52kg judoka ABE Uta beaming.
Having embarked on the path of judo with her brother ABE Hifumi, they now have their sights set on the Tokyo 2020 Games. The additional year provided Uta more time to polish her skills, while waiting for her brother to secure a spot on the national team. With a victory in an unprecedented one-off bout, Hifumi claimed the final spot in the men’s -66kg category.
With a family bond made stronger by the pandemic, they will now strive for gold medals together.
The historic 24-minute decisive bout
On 13 December 2020, Uta was at the main dojo of judo headquarters, the Kodokan. Along with her parents, they watched as her brother, the two-time -66kg world champion, and the 2019 world champion MARUYAMA Joshiro, engaged in the first-ever one-off bout to qualify for the Olympic team.
“Since this one-off qualifier differed from the usual format, the room was filled with a tense energy that I had never felt before. As a pandemic countermeasure we weren’t allowed to vocalise, so it was eerily quiet too. It was an incredible match. The winner wasn’t decided until well into the Golden Score (overtime) period. I didn’t think it would end,” Uta said.
After the regulation four-minute match, it took an additional 20 minutes for a winner to be declared. Hifumi stayed on the attack and launched into a large inner reap with his right leg, throwing Maruyama off balance and back into the mat. After viewing the instant replay, Hifumi was awarded a waza-ari.That moment meant both siblings are now set to represent Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“We weren’t supposed to make noise, but at that moment I was shouting inadvertently. I was excited and nervous too. Until then I had been at a training camp for representatives, so I wasn’t able to spend time with him. When I finally saw him the night before the match at the hotel, I wished him ‘good luck’, and he just replied, ‘yes, yes’. He looked ready.”
The undecided status of “Sibling Olympians”
Of the 14 weight categories, 13 members had been selected for the national team by February 2020, including Uta. Only the men’s -66kg division remained undecided, and her brother and Maruyama were the lead contenders. The men’s qualifying event was scheduled to take place during the National Judo Championships by Weight Category in April; however, the tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the status of the “Sibling Olympians” still hanging in the balance, the Tokyo 2020 Games were postponed for one year.
“I thought a postponement was likely, so I wasn’t upset by the decision. I had been preparing for the Games to be in 2020, so I realised the need to restart that process again, but I wasn’t shocked or anything. I was more excited about having the extra year to improve.”
The dojo where Uta trains at Nippon Sport Science University closed when the state of emergency was declared. For two months she was unable to practice on the tatami mats. As a combat sport, close contact with others is unavoidable. It was not until late-June that she was able to practice uchikomi (repetition training) and randori (free sparring) again. With outside contact limited during the stay-at-home period, many athletes had to continue their training in isolation.
But Uta was fortunate. She had her brother Hifumi.
“I mostly trained with my brother, and we ran a lot. It was the first time we had spent that much time together. I hate losing, so I tried to beat him at running, but I never could. That was frustrating,” she laughed.
Complex emotions during the stay-at-home period, and a new goal for the Abe family
After joining her older brother’s dojo, Uta had always followed in his footsteps. They were in the same Judo Club for the first time at Nippon Sport Science University, although the men and women trained separately. There she saw his greatness. Still, she was hindered by the difference in their positions — she had already secured a spot on the national team, and her brother who was still striving to do so. It was a complex situation.
“I didn’t talk about the Olympics. Since I was the only one who had been selected, I viewed the training as both of us working towards our goals, rather than in preparation for the Olympics. At that point, we had different goals — mine was to win a gold medal, and my brothers was to qualify for the team. And of course, I believed he would win.”
For both siblings, to win an Olympic gold medal was the Abe family’s dream. When they both achieved victory at the 2018 World Championships, that dream became an attainable goal. However, the following year only Uta had won another World Championship title. Having lost the 2019 World Championship title to Maruyama, Hifumi also lagged behind his rival for a position on the Olympic team.
“It was complicated for my family too. We couldn’t talk about the winning a gold medal together anymore. My parents didn’t bring up the Olympics either. We were finally able to say, ‘let’s all work hard together’, after my brother won his spot. The day after the qualifying bout, we had dinner as a family and together we refocused our sights on the Olympics.”
Honing skills to reach the level
During the Games’ postponement, Uta had been working hard to improve her judo skills; even spending time on sutemi-waza (sacrifice techniques), which were previously not her forte. She also learned to lower her posture. Remaining in an attack position and winning by ippon is her judo style. However, that is not always effective. If careless when advancing, she could be subjected to a sutemi-waza by her opponent. Motivated by her brother’s struggles against Maruyama’s tomoe-nage (circular throw, a type of sutemi-waza) and other techniques, she continues to embark on new challenges to expand her skill set.
“Everybody does research, and I need to be able to consider alternatives when my judo isn’t enough. My brother and I have a similar style, so there are times when we are thrown by a sutemi-waza. I need to be able to counter that, and I think that having the skills to adapt is necessary to compete at a higher level.”
Judo tournaments around the world were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Uta’s next bout will be at the Doha Masters in January 2021. It will be her first tournament since winning gold alongside her brother at the Düsseldorf Grand Slam in February 2020.
“Since it’s been so long between competitions, I know I’ll be nervous, and I have my concerns. But my anticipation for the event is much greater. I’m excited to be able to feel that nervousness before a match again. Training is going well, so all that’s left is to stay healthy.”
Proudly heading towards their shining moment at Tokyo 2020 together
After nearly a year between bouts, Uta looks towards the next tournament with a smile, because she is confident in her abilities. She’s also content because her brother will be competing as well. Within the sports world, their close sibling bond is well known. As lifestyles changed in 2020, a special focus has been placed on “family”.
Perhaps that is another reason why so many people relate and root for these two athletes who value the importance of family.
“There was a time when I couldn’t say that we’ll win a gold medal together, but now I can with confidence. That feeling of uncertainty is gone. We’re both rooting for each other, although we never say so in person. Even without words, you can feel the support. I couldn’t have made it this far without my older brother. It’s impossible to know if I would have even started learning judo without him.”
Although it is difficult to be optimistic about the global situation, Uta is eager for the summer and the Tokyo 2020 Games, where she and her brother Hifumi will compete. Both events —Uta’s -52kg division and her brother’s -66kg division — take place on 25 July.
“I will spare no effort as I head into each match. I hope to provide excitement to the many people who have watched me compete. And I want to be able to showcase our ‘attack for ippon’ judo style. That day is going to be very special for me and my brother, so I’m determined to do my best in order to truly shine.”
The gold medal attempts of two-time world champion Uta and her brother Hifumi, who defeated the reigning world champion to join the Olympic team, will surely excite the nation.