Athlete Interview (part 2):'I enjoy the fact that there are things I don't understand' Pursuing the essence of wrestling - an interview with Japan's four-time Olympic women's wrestling champion Kaori Icho

After winning her second consecutive gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Games, women’s freestyle wrestler Kaori Icho says that she considered the possibility of retiring. The reason she changed her mind was due to her encounter with men’s wrestling. Icho underwent a radical change in her understanding of what wrestling is actually all about – almost to the extent that she was embarrassed to have won an Olympic gold medal – and this 'road to Damascus' moment served as a new source of motivation. Even now after claiming gold medals at four successive Olympic Games, Icho says there is still so much she doesn’t understand, and this spurs her on to pursue the essence of wrestling. We asked her about her pursuit of excellence and what she hopes to achieve.

Encountering men’s wrestling proved to be a major turning point

Kaori Icho is on a quest to pursue the essence of wrestling. What is she hoping to achieve?

I understand that you trained and practiced with male wrestlers after the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. How did that change your technical and mental approach?

I believe it was a major turning point for me. I had actually considered retiring after the Beijing 2008 Games. My sister, Chiharu, had retired and I found it hard to see the point of going on to compete at the Olympics alone. I felt that even if I were to win another Olympic gold medal it wouldn’t mean that much to me. It was just around that time that I came into contact with men’s wrestling, and I quickly realised that I didn’t actually know the first thing about wrestling. I was so taken aback by the fact that I didn’t understand the essence of wrestling that I was actually embarrassed to have won an Olympic gold medal. I decided to start learning about wrestling all over again with a clean slate, and I remember thinking how much fun it was – just like being a young girl again. I wasn’t concerned about the Olympics, or winning or losing, I just wanted to study about the quintessence of wrestling.

I wanted to become more like male wrestlers both in terms of technique and also physical strength. The level of the world’s leading male wrestlers is amazingly high, so winning a medal is a really major achievement. The competitors give their all just to win a medal. When I think now about how determined the male competitors are, I realise how weak I was in comparison. When I looked at the hunger the male wrestlers displayed and how determined they were to win a point and overcome their opponent, it was an invaluable source of learning for me. I think my whole outlook changed from that time on. I changed my way of thinking and actually going about my wrestling, as well as the nutritional and physical conditioning aspects of the sport.

What is the major difference between men’s and women’s wrestling?

I used to rely on my instincts when I was wrestling. Why does a right-handed opponent lead with his/her right hand, or a left-handed opponent lead with his/her left hand? There is always a reason for this. There are certain points to bringing down an opponent on the mat. But I couldn’t explain what these were, and I couldn’t explain my own way of wrestling. When I was asked how I had won a particular point, I had no idea how I’d done it and couldn’t explain it at all. I just used to say something flippant like ‘because my opponent went down.’ So I began to focus on the reasons and the theories behind men’s wrestling, and trained and competed in a way that I could explain. This is the kind of wrestler I wanted to become. If you can explain it you can communicate it to other people, and if I ever take up coaching I’ll be able to explain myself more articulately. At the same time – as realising how much depth there was to wrestling – I also become embarrassingly aware of just how shallow my wrestling style had been.

Are you very particular about your wrestling style?

Until I came into contact with men’s wrestling, I was quite confident about my handling and manipulation capabilities. So, I used to try to wear down my opponent until they made a mistake. I only used to go on the attack near the end of a bout when I could see that my opponent was getting tired. That was my style. But after studying men’s wrestling, I came to see the enjoyment of attacking moves, and the joy of winning a hard-won point. Since then, I always train with an attacking mindset.

Wrestling has brought a richness to my life

Coming into contact with men’s wrestling after the Beijing 2008 Games was a major turning point in Icho’s wrestling career.

Did you encounter many difficulties changing the style that had served you so well until then?

It took quite some time until I was able to use the new style in competitions. I gradually tried it in practice bouts, introduced it slowly into my competitive matches until it became an integral part of my armoury. Since then I have really enjoyed it. Now I have a strong sense of wanting to learn new skills and techniques and using these in competitions.

I’m sure your opponents do plenty of research on you. So, how do you go about formulating a strategy or game plan?

As in most sports, in wrestling you are faced with an opponent, and sometimes even if you beat an opponent comfortably in one bout, the next time you meet the winning margin might be much narrower. I work out a game plan, but naturally my opponent does the same. I think about what strategy I will use this time. It can be difficult trying a particular tactic, or trying something else if that doesn't work, and adapting to the situation. But ultimately, that is one of the great pleasures I derive from wrestling. No two matches are ever the same, so you have to be ready to change your tactics if necessary. Reflecting on your performance after a defeat and making sure you win the next match is tough in any sport, but that is the probably the part of wrestling that gives me most satisfaction.

What do you think are the major factors behind your continued success so far?

Actually, I’m not winning so much at the moment, so it’s difficult for me to answer that one! I don’t get over concerned about keeping up a winning streak or even losing. I will have my long years of experience in wrestling to fall back on even after I retire. I have steadily built up knowledge and experience over time, and that won’t suddenly disappear, so I hope that it will stand me in good stead long into the future.

Do you think there are certain aspects of your wrestling that are superior to your opponents?

Only the fact that I love wrestling so much. I’ve been wrestling ever since I was very young, and I have never thought about giving it up. Mind you, sometimes I do feel like taking a bit of a break from it. I am so happy that I found wrestling, and I really feel that wrestling has added richness to my life.

If I don’t give up, occasionally it comes to me in a sudden flash of inspiration

‘I enjoy the fact there are things I don’t understand.’ Kaori Icho explains what aspects of wrestling she finds most enjoyable.

What exactly is it about wrestling that you find so attractive?

If you try it you’ll find out, ha ha!

I see, ha ha!

I enjoy the fact that there are so many things that I don’t understand. The more I do it, the more difficult it becomes. Even when things go well in practice sessions, sometimes they don’t go to plan during competitive matches. A move that worked well on one opponent doesn’t necessarily work well on another. That can be frustrating. If a particular move works on ten opponents out of ten, then I’m really pleased, but if it only works on one opponent out of ten, it can be exasperating. However, I really enjoy it if I can increase the number of opponents that it does work on. Occasionally I start thinking that maybe this particular technique or move doesn’t suit me, but if I stop using it, I’ll never be able to master it. So I never give up on it. I keep on working on it in training and practice sessions, and occasionally it comes to me in a sudden flash of inspiration, ‘Ah, this is how you do it’, or ‘this is what I’ve been doing wrong’. When I understand it fully and can explain it verbally, that’s when I know I’ve mastered it. That is great fun and very satisfying. If I give up on it, I’ll never understand it.

So even though you’ve been Olympic champion four times and have built up a wealth of experience throughout your career, there are still many things that you don’t understand, aren’t there?

Some people have longer or shorter arms and legs, and some are more agile than others, so it’s important for each individual wrestler to find a style of wrestling that suits them. I am not particularly powerful or fast, so I have to think about how I can make up for those. Powerful athletes are able to turn to a power style of wrestling, and those who are fast can use that aspect to their advantage. At the moment, I can’t emulate those styles, but I would like to try my hand at power wrestling and speed wrestling, as well as technical wrestling at some point. After perfecting one style, moving on to perfect another style. There really is no limit to it.

So, what do you feel is the real essence of wrestling?

I don’t know the answer to that myself. That is the path that I most want to pursue. There is no right or wrong style, the person who wins is the better athlete, that’s all there is to it. Once again I’m beginning to feel that winning is difficult, but right now I’m hoping that I will be able to overcome that hurdle.

Not reflecting on a defeat is a lost opportunity

‘Losing teaches you about your weaknesses.’ Win or lose, Icho always looks for the positives.

So far in your career, have you never been afraid of losing?

On the contrary, you learn much more when you lose. Not reflecting on a defeat is a lost opportunity. Losing a bout teaches you about your weaknesses and what you did wrong. When you win, you don’t really think about those things, and many of your weak points go unnoticed. But when you lose, those weaknesses become painfully apparent. If you don’t correct those you can’t hope to win. Losing gives you the opportunity to reflect on your performance and see exactly why you lost. There is no need to be afraid of losing. For example, if I am defeated because I didn't go on the attack, then I feel that is the reason for my defeat. And if I'm defeated after going on the attack, I need to think hard about that again. So, losing is not a bad thing at all.

Are you the type of person who establishes a major objective and then works backwards and devises a plan aimed at achieving that, or do you set yourself small daily objectives, and clear those before setting yourself a major target?

I think I’m in the latter category. I find it difficult working backwards. Sometimes even after training daily for a week, two weeks or even a month, I still can’t achieve the goal I have set myself. There are times when I think I have understood a particular technique, but I haven’t understood it as thoroughly as I thought. It takes time to really get to the crux of the matter. I think that practicing the same moves over and over, making gradual progress, and occasionally stepping back to assess things is the approach that suits me better.

What is the ultimate goal that you are aiming for?

I want to be able to explain all my skills and techniques. There are many different styles and techniques, and many different types of competitors. You never know what style a wrestler may be or what kind of techniques they will use on you. For example, there are times when my coach teaches me a new skill that he used to practice when he was still an active wrestler, and the new skill doesn’t go as well as planned, so we think about it together. However, I believe that a coach should have more knowledge and experience than the athlete. That’s the reason I want to understand as many skills and techniques as possible.

Wrestling (Olympic Sports)