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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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MORE: Helen Maroulis wrestled in the dark with concussion

Pole vaulter, 84, sets her sights on more records

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BURLINGTON, Vt. — An 84-year-old pole vaulter isn’t putting her pole down anytime soon.

Flo Filion Meiler left Thursday for the World Masters Athletics Championship Indoor in Poland, where she’ll compete in events including the long jump, 60-meter hurdles, 800-meter run, pentathlon and pole vault, for which she’s the shoo-in.

The petite, energetic woman from Shelburne, Vermont, said she feels more like 70 than nearly 85.

“But you know, I do train five days a week. And when I found out I was going to compete at the worlds, I’ve been training six days a week because I knew I would really get my body in shape,” she said last week, after track and field training at the University of Vermont.

But she literally won’t have any competition in the pole vault in the championships, which runs March 24-31 in Torun, Poland. She is the only one registered in her age group, 80-84, for the sport, for which she set a world record at age 80. In the men’s pole vault, nine men are listed as competing in that age group.

Meiler said she the events she likes the best are the hurdles and the pole vault – one of the more daring track and field events, in which competitors run while carrying a fiberglass or composite pole, brace it against the ground to launch themselves over a high bar, and land on a mat.

“You really have to work at that,” she said. “You have to have the upper core and you have to have timing, and I just love it because it’s challenging.”

Meiler is used to hard work. She grew up on a dairy farm, where she helped her father with the chores, feeding the cattle and raking hay. In school, she did well at basketball, took tap and ballroom dancing, and, living near Lake Champlain, she water skied.

Meiler, who worked for 30 years as a sales representative for Herbalife nutritional supplements, and her husband, Eugene, who was a military pilot and then became a financial analyst, together competed in water skiing.

“Many times when I did water ski competition I was the only gal in my age group,” she said.

She’s a relative newcomer to pole vaulting and track and field, overall. At age 60, she was competing in doubles tennis with her husband in a qualifying year at the Vermont Senior Games when a friend encouraged her to try the long jump because competitors were needed.

“That was the beginning of my track career,” she said, standing in a room of her home, surrounded by hundreds of hanging medals. She took up pole vaulting at 65.

Athletics has helped her though some hard times, she said. She and her husband adopted three children after losing two premature biological babies and a 3-year-old. Two years ago, their son died at age 51.

And she desperately misses her training partner, a woman who started having health problems about five years ago and can no longer train. It’s tough to train alone, she said, and she hopes to find a new partner.

“She’s incredibly serious about what she does,” said Meiler’s coach, Emmaline Berg. “She comes in early to make sure she’s warmed up enough. She goes home and stretches a lot. So she pretty much structures her entire life around being a fantastic athlete, which is remarkable at any age, let alone hers.”

And it has paid off, said Berg, an assistant track coach at Vermont.

Berg herself first started following Meiler 10 years ago while she was a student at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College, watching her at the annual Dartmouth Relays.

“She was like a local celebrity,” she said.

Setting a record at age 80 with a 6-foot (1.8-meter) pole vault at the USA Track and Field Adirondack Championships in Albany, New York, while her husband watched, Meiler said, was one of her happiest days.

“I was screaming, I was so happy,” she said.

The overall world record for women’s pole vaulting is 16.6 feet (5.6 meters), according to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

Meiler turns 85 in June, when she’ll head to the National Senior Games in New Mexico.

That will put her in a new age group, in which she hopes to set even more records.

Meiler’s athletic achievements are remarkable and something to be celebrated, said Dr. Michael LaMantia, director of the University of Vermont Center on Aging.

Pole vaulting clearly isn’t for everyone of her age, but in general, activity should be, LaMantia said.

“She can serve as a role model for other seniors,” he said.

Amateur boxing president steps aside during IOC inquiry

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — With Olympic boxing under investigation by the IOC, the president of the sport’s governing body said on Friday he was stepping aside to let an interim leader take charge.

Gafur Rakhimov sai d he was not resigning as AIBA president, however, and did not call for new elections.

Rakhimov’s status on a U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list as an alleged heroin trafficker is part of an inquiry by an International Olympic Committee-appointed panel.

The panel will update the IOC executive board next week in Lausanne, Switzerland. AIBA could be derecognized by IOC members in June.

The IOC halted planning for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic boxing tournaments and blocked AIBA officials from contacting organizers in Japan.

“The allegations against me were fabricated and based on politically motivated lies,” Rakhimov said. “I trust that the truth will prevail. Nevertheless, I have always said that I would never put myself above boxing, and as president, I have a duty to do everything in my power to serve our sport and our athletes.”

Under AIBA statutes, an interim president is picked from among the five vice-presidents, who include several Rakhimov supporters. The executive committee is due to meet by telephone this weekend. The interim leader can serve only a maximum 365 days before fresh elections, however, meaning that arrangement can’t last through to the Tokyo Olympics.

When Rakhimov was elected last year, his supporters pushed for a plan to allow the president to step aside while still retaining key influence and being able to return at any time, but that was defeated.

It’s not clear if Rakhimov’s departure would be enough to calm the IOC, which has also criticized AIBA over how fights are judged, anti-doping measures, and its debts.

The IOC could try to host an Olympic boxing tournament without AIBA, and some national boxing officials have tried to form a group which could help the IOC stage the event.