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Japanese wrestling legend fails to make world championships, Olympics in peril

Wrestling World Championships Japan Play-Offs

WAKO, JAPAN - JULY 06: Kaori Icho reacts while being interviewed after losing the Women’s 57kg play-off match against Risako Kawai during the Wrestling World Championships Japan Play-offs at Wako Sports Gymnasium on July 6, 2019 in Wako, Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

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Kaori Icho‘s bid to become the first person to earn individual gold at five Olympics just got tougher.

Icho, already the lone woman to earn individual gold at four Olympics, lost a playoff against fellow Rio Olympic champion Risako Kawai for a world championships spot, according to Japanese media.

It’s the biggest setback of Icho’s comeback after taking more than two years off from competition following Rio.

“Frankly, this is frustrating,” Icho, 35, said Saturday, according to Kyodo News. “Making up for that hiatus was difficult and that has played a part.”

Icho, who won the 58kg class at the Rio Games, and Kawai, the 63kg champ in Brazil, split previous matches in December and June, marking Icho’s first defeat to a countrywoman in 17 years. Kawai moved down in weight for this Olympic cycle and into direct competition with Icho.

Kawai will clinch Japan’s lone available 2020 Olympic 57kg berth if she makes the podium at worlds in Kazakhstan in September. Icho will not try to qualify for Tokyo in another weight class should Kawai succeed, her coach said, according to the Asahi Shimbun.

“Now I wait,” Icho said, according to Kyodo. “[Five straight Olympic golds] is a rare feat, something highly out of the ordinary. My desire going forward to attract people to wrestling — either as a competitor or a coach — is unchanged.”

Icho once held a 13-year win streak and owns 10 world championships.

She is already the oldest female Olympic wrestling champion (women’s wrestling was added to the Olympic program in 2004, Icho’s first Games). By 2020, she will be older than any men’s wrestling champion since Bulgarian Valentin Yordanov in 1996.

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