Japan's Icho captures historic wrestling gold

Japan's Icho captures historic wrestling gold

Kaori Icho's cold, tense stare never broke as she wiped out opponent after helpless opponent.

Kaori Icho of Japan, competes against Jing Ruixue of China, in their 63-kg women's freestyle wrestling gold medal match at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, in London. AP

It was only when Icho sealed her third straight Olympic gold medal that she showed just how relieved she was to have done it again.

Icho won the women's 63-kilogram freestyle division Wednesday at the London Games, becoming the first Japanese woman to capture the same event in three straight Olympics.

Icho beat Ruixue Jing of China 3-0, 2-0, her latest victory in a 72-match winning streak.Shortly after winning, a beaming Icho pumped her fist to the large contingent of Japanese fans who had chanted her name during the final.

Icho's intimidating gaze was gone, replaced by smiles, waves and the obligatory medal display to the crowd.

"I feel I have big responsibility in fighting at the Olympic Games," Icho said. "I burst into happiness just after I finished fighting. Thanks to the people who supported me, they helped me win," Icho said.

Hitomi Obara made it a sweep for Japan, winning her first Olympic gold medal in women's 48-kilogram freestyle wrestling by rallying to beat Mariya Stadnyk of Azerbaijan 0-4, 1-0, 2-0.

Carol Huynh of Canada and Clarissa Chun of the United States won bronze, with Chun giving the US its first wrestling medal of the London Games.

As for Icho, she joined Russian legend Alexander Karelin are the only wrestlers to win three straight golds in a specific weight class.

She didn't look like the massive Karelin in her bright white shoes and a light blue singlet featuring a glowing golden tiger.

But after allowing Martine Dugrenier of Canada to score a point on her in the opener, Icho exerted her will on the field. 

Sweden's Henna Johansson came out to face Icho in the quarterfinals with a wide-eyed look on her face. It was as though Johansson was trying to convince herself it'd be just another match.

It wasn't. The expressionless Icho thumped her 1-0, 4-0 to move on to the semifinals against Mongolia's Battsetseg Soronzonbold.

Battsetseg was impressive on Wednesday, even slamming an early opponent to the mat from her shoulders. But Icho had no trouble at all with Soronzonbold, disposing of her 1-0, 4-0 as though it were a light training session.

Icho switched to the red singlet for the final, and from the moment the horn sounded Jing was fighting simply to stay on her feet.

Jing seemed thrilled with silver on the medal stand. Given how dominant Icho is, she probably should be. Icho's last non-victory was actually a forfeit at the 2007 Asian championships.

The last time anyone beat on the mat was when Sara McMann of the US did it 2003. Icho's won 153 in a row since then, and though she wouldn't commit to the Rio Games in 2016 she'd certainly be the favorite.

"These three Olympics have gone by so fast," Icho said. Obara has won six world titles at 51 kilograms, a non-Olympic weight, and she took the last two world titles at 48 kilograms.

She, like Icho, was the heavy favorite to win gold after cruising to the finals.But Stadnyk made Obara work for her gold.

Stadnyk won the first period convincingly, and Obara had to either pin her or win the last two frames. Obara couldn't get the fall, but a push out and a takedown in the third period got her through. 

The 31-year-old Obara, who's left the sport and returned to it more than once, collapsed to her knees and began weeping when she realized that she finally had Olympic gold to put next to all those world titles.

"I thought I was going to lose," said Obara, who also beat Stadnyk in the 2011 world championship final. "Thanks to the advice of my coach and supervisor, I was able to switch my mental (state) and then I was able to carry on the match."

After three days of trudging back to the Olympic Village without a medal, the Americans looked to be in rough shape again when Elena Pirozhkova and Chun lost early matches.Chun was dominant is taking down China's Zhao Shasha in her first match. But she drew Stadnyk in the round of 16 -- an unlucky draw considering Chun won the world championship just four years ago and was fifth in Beijing -- and fell 2-0, 3-0.Pirozhkova didn't earn a spot in the consolation bracket.

Chun did, and she preserved through the repechage to bring a sense of relief to the Americans.

Chun wrestled her way back into a bronze-medal matchup with Ukrainian Irina Merleni, who beat Chun for bronze in the same scenario in 2008.

Chun scored late to take the first period, then sealed the win with three points in the second frame.

"It was like redemption time," Chun said. "I learned from Beijing...I just stayed, collected and excited for the opportunity."