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Will Japan’s Olympic legend return for Tokyo 2020?

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NEW YORK — The Tokyo Olympics are in 790 days. Will Japan’s most dominant Olympian compete?

“She hasn’t decided yet,” a translator said beside wrestler Kaori Icho, who stood in street clothes, some given to her by an American host family, matside at the annual Beat the Streets meet on the edge of the East River on Manhattan last week.

Icho, who turns 34 on June 13, is the only woman to earn an individual gold medal at four Olympics. She has not wrestled in competition since capturing that fourth title in Rio. She has not announced retirement, either.

Icho once held a 13-year winning streak on the mat and owns 10 world championships.

While in New York, Icho did a high school clinic in Brooklyn (one wonders if the students knew they were learning from the greatest of all time), met Olympic and world champion Kyle Snyder (a particular highlight of this trip) and trained with Helen Maroulis before attending the meet as a spectator. In Rio, Maroulis became the first American woman to win an Olympic wrestling title.

Maroulis is familiar with Icho. In 2012, they trained together and drove to a Drake concert in Colorado. They met again in 2014. But last week was different. The most intense training they’ve shared. Their first full practice, said Maroulis, recently cleared from a January concussion.

“I think she’s coming back,” Maroulis said with confidence. Here’s why: “[Icho] busted out the video camera,” Maroulis went on. “Like, hey, can I record practice?

“She feels good. She’s still got it. She’s smaller than she was, obviously, right at the Olympics. She’s amazing. There’s so much to learn from her.”

Icho said through the translator that if she does come back, she would start in the next year rather than leaving it a few months before the Tokyo Games.

She is already the oldest woman to win Olympic wrestling gold (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.

How much a home Olympics influences Icho’s decision is something that she didn’t share. Icho said she might go for a fifth Olympics even if the 2020 Games were not in Japan.

“It’s hard to say,” said Ken Marantz, who has covered sports in Japan for three decades. “She’s kind of a quiet person.”

United World Wrestling shadowed Icho and the more-famous Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida before the Rio Olympics as both trained to go for their fourth gold medals. The international federation made a 20-minute documentary titled, “The Celebrity and the Samurai.”

Yoshida was the celebrity, her face a constant on TV, Icho the samurai, a zen-like warrior. Yoshida would lose in her Rio Olympic final to Maroulis, one day after Icho won her weight class.

“Kaori, she was always more private and less approachable, not in a bad way,” said William May, who has written about international wrestling for 30 years, including for Kyodo News in Tokyo. “She’s always been kind of a mystery to the Japanese.”

Like when she lived in Canada with her sister for months after the 2008 Olympics, skipping a world championships during her peak years.

“It’s not that I don’t like being on TV, but I don’t like my practice time being taken away or to lose time for myself,” Icho said in the 2016 United World Wrestling film.

Something else to consider is that Japan is the world power in women’s wrestling. It might be more difficult for Icho to earn Japan’s one available Olympic spot in the 58kg division than run through the Olympic bracket of the best from the rest of the world.

Japanese women took gold at the 2017 World Championships in both the 55kg and 60kg divisions. Those two women, both several years younger than Icho, must choose to go for the Olympics in the 53kg, 58kg or 63kg divisions.

Maroulis, who now competes at 58kg, wants to face Icho at the Olympics in what she called “a dream” matchup. The American’s dominance the last three years rivals Icho’s heyday — world titles in 2015 and 2017 without surrendering a point, winning the latter title with a torn thumb ligament, and dethroning Yoshida in Rio in between, all three golds at different weights while compiling a 78-1 record before the concussion.

Icho described her recent practice with Maroulis as “very hard.”

“She doesn’t quit,” Icho said through the translator. “She just keeps coming.”

Icho re-emerged in Japanese headlines in recent months as a tragic figure. A reported history of verbal harassment and threats from a Japanese Wrestling Federation director who resigned.

The biggest Japanese athlete story at the Tokyo Games would be if two-way baseball star Shohei Ohtani suited up, Marantz said. But Ohtani is on a Los Angeles Angels contract until 2024, which would keep him out of the Games unless MLB reverses its stance and releases players for the Olympics.

After that, perhaps Kohei Uchimura, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic all-around champion gymnast expected to compete in fewer events in the last years of his career. (Icho said that if she could pick anybody to light the Olympic cauldron, not including wrestlers, it would be Uchimura.)

Or the Japanese men’s 4x100m relay team that took silver in Rio and bronze at the 2017 Worlds. Or a rising group of table tennis players challenging the rival Chinese.

Swimming, gymnastics and judo are more popular sports in Japan than wrestling, Marantz said. But the nation would be pulling for Icho’s pursuit of individual gold in five Olympics, something no man or woman from any nation in any sport has done.

“Icho does not care one bit for records,” Tim Foley, who followed Icho for the 2016 film and escorted her in New York, said before the Rio Games. 

“Of course [Icho] wants to win, but it’s less important than wrestling a perfect match,” May said. That’s one thing she hasn’t done.

“I think she likes the challenge,” Marantz said. “Any tournaments that I went to that she won, which was all the ones she was in, she never, ever said she wrestled good.”

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Yevgenia Medvedeva’s long shot is Rostelecom Cup; TV, live stream schedule

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Yevgenia Medvedeva‘s situation going into this week’s Rostelecom Cup: fend off her ex-coach’s newest young teenage jumper, or miss qualifying for the most exclusive competition in figure skating for a second straight year.

Medvedeva, who at this stage in the last Olympic cycle began her senior-level dominance, again searches for consistency at this week’s Grand Prix stop in Moscow, streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

The 19-year-old last won a top-level international competition two years ago, her final victory of a two-year win streak that included two world titles. An Olympic silver medal followed, then a messy breakup with coach Eteri Tutberidze and a move to Toronto to train under Brian Orser.

Medvedeva failed to qualify for last season’s six-skater Grand Prix Final in her new environment. She rebounded to place third at the world championships, but the start of this Grand Prix season brought more short-program struggles.

She stumbled out of a double Axel landing, then fell and slid into the boards on a triple Lutz at Skate Canada three weeks ago. She ended up fifth overall, making her a long shot for December’s Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest competition of the year after March’s world championships.

To get to the six-skater Final, Medvedeva must win this week and get some help in the standings from other skaters either in Moscow or at next week’s NHK Trophy.

It’s a difficult task given the Rostelecom field includes the world’s top-ranked skater: Alexandra Trusova, a 15-year-old who is part of the Tutberidze group that also includes the other two Grand Prix winners this fall.

Trusova outscored Medvedeva by 31.4 points at Skate Canada, soaring to the title in her senior Grand Prix debut on the power of three quadruple jumps. She became the youngest Grand Prix winner in eight years and an early favorite to become the youngest world champion since Tara Lipinski in 1997.

Medvedeva racked up dominant wins in the last cycle by putting all of her triple jumps in the second half of programs (new rules since took away this bonus). But in the last year, skaters arrived on the senior scene armed with quads and triple Axels that neither Medvedeva nor Olympic champion Alina Zagitova have landed in competition.

Other notables in this week’s field include U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell, who will have a chance at the Grand Prix Final if she can make a second straight Grand Prix podium. And Japanese Satoko Miyahara, a two-time world medalist who was second at Cup of China last week.

The men’s field is wide open given headliner Shoma Uno, the Olympic silver medalist, is coming off an eighth-place finish at his last event. Russia has the top-ranked pairs’ and dance entries in Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov.

Rostelecom Cup Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Friday 6 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
8 a.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
12:30 p.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 5:30 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
7:30 a.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
9:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
11:45 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 12-1:30 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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U.S. beats Japan in Olympic baseball qualifier, may still need help

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The U.S. handed Japan its first loss in the Premier12 global Olympic baseball qualifier, at the Tokyo Dome no less, but now the Americans must root for the host nation.

The Americans, with a roster mostly of Double-A and Triple-A players, won 4-3 over a Japanese team that includes some of its domestic league’s biggest stars like two-time Central League MVP Yoshihiro Maru and veteran shortstop Hayato Sakamoto.

Outfielder Jo Adell, MLB Pipeline’s top-ranked prospect on the U.S. team, starred by reaching base four times with a home run.

Japan is already qualified for baseball’s Olympic return as the host nation.

The U.S., meanwhile, has a sense of urgency at Premier12, the first of a possible three tournaments in which it could clinch an Olympic spot.

At Premier12, the top-ranked nation from North and South America qualifies for the Olympics. The tournament is at the super-round stage of the final six teams, and two are from the Americas: the U.S. and Mexico.

The top four nations after each has played five games advance to gold- and bronze-medal games.

Mexico already beat the U.S. and ran its super-round record to 3-0 on Tuesday, clinching a spot in the medal round.

The U.S. moved to 1-2 in the super round on Tuesday and must at least get into the same medal-round game as Mexico to keep its hope of finishing as the top team from the Americas.

Japan could help, since it plays Mexico on Wednesday. If Mexico beats Japan, the Mexicans clinch a spot in the gold-medal game, which would put more pressure on the U.S. to win its last two games (vs. Australia on Wednesday and Chinese Taipei on Friday). Even then, South Korea would get into the gold-medal game if it wins out.

If the U.S. is not the top team from the Americas at Premier12, it can still earn an Olympic berth in March. But then it faces trying to come up with a roster at the end of MLB’s spring training rather than during the offseason. MLB teams may be less inclined to release minor leaguers.

“That’ll be a delicate dance,” U.S. general manager Eric Campbell said before Premier12.

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