Trailblazers: ICHO Kaori - 'It just had to be gold'

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 17: Gold medalist Icho Kaori of Japan celebrates during the medal ceremony after the Women's Freestyle 58 kg competition on Day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Caioca Arena 2 on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 17: Gold medalist Icho Kaori of Japan celebrates during the medal ceremony after the Women's Freestyle 58 kg competition on Day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Caioca Arena 2 on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In every day and age, there are people who pioneer uncharted territory. They are often referred to as trailblazers. In this series, we look back on athletes who led the way for Japan and delivered unprecedented success for the nation. In the second part of the series, we take a look at ICHO Kaori who won her fourth straight gold medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.

ICHO Kaori wins her fourth gold medal in Women's Wrestling

The moment Icho became the first female Olympian to capture individual gold medal for the fourth straight time, the stern expression on her face remained unchanged. Yet, when she stood on the highest spot on the Olympic podium, she smiled, pressing her lips tightly together. When Kimigayo, the national anthem of Japan played, she looked up high above, twice. "Now I can feel that it’s for real," she said.

Women’s wrestling was officially added to the Olympic programme in Athens 2004, which was the first Games Icho competed in, at the age of 20. Subsequently, she earned three back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 63kg weight class. At Rio 2016, she competed at 58kg for the first time.

"I’m adamant about winning," said Icho before her match, voicing words she would normally keep to herself. Despite switching weight categories, she moved up steadily from the first round into the final. As a prospective gold medalist expected to become the first female athlete to win the fourth straight individual gold medal, she was in the spotlight, gathering attention for every move she made. In the final bout, despite taking the first point, Icho allowed her Russian opponent, Valeriia Koblova Zholobova, to turn the tables on her during the first period, just past two minutes.

With the score remaining at 1-2, the bout entered its final phase. The crowd fell silent, left in suspense as to whether Icho would achieve her fourth back-to-back victory. However, in the second period, with 15 seconds to go, Icho displayed her tenacity. Breaking the hold on her right leg, she spun behind her opponent for a reversal in the final five seconds. Amid the roaring crowd, the whistle blew to signal the end of the match.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 17: Valeriia Koblova Zholobova of Russia (blue) competes against Icho Kaori of Japan during the Women's Freestyle 58 kg Gold Medal match on Day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Caioca Arena 2 on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 17: Valeriia Koblova Zholobova of Russia (blue) competes against Icho Kaori of Japan during the Women's Freestyle 58 kg Gold Medal match on Day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Caioca Arena 2 on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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“It just had to be a gold,” Icho said.

After amassing 189 consecutive victories over 13 years since 2003 (excluding loss by default), Icho was finally defeated in the final of an international competition held in Russia in January 2016, the year of the Olympic Games. "It would be a waste if I don’t make a good lesson out of this loss," she uttered with her silver medal around her neck. Winning the gold had become her norm, but the loss in Russia prompted her to go back to basics, relaunching her adamant quest for victory.

Born in 1984 in Aomori Prefecture, Icho took up wrestling following her older brother and sister into the sport. She always trained with wrestlers bigger than herself, which helped her establish her own style of wearing down the opponent first before initiating attacks. Since moving up from 56kg to 63kg in weight class, she has become invincible. Having achieved 189 consecutive victories and four straight Olympic gold medals, she has also been awarded the People’s Honor Award and the Medal with Purple Ribbon.

Living up to the high expectation placed on her, she topped the podium four times in a row by turning the table right before the end of the final match. Rather than her winning streak of 189 matches, it was a single defeat that made Icho even stronger. "I would like to express my gratitude to as many people as I can," Icho said.

She gave back all the support she had received in the form of a gold medal, while achieving an unprecedented feat.