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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

Nathan Chen prepared to capture third national title

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Nathan Chen called into his media teleconference from the rink last week, still on his winter break between his freshman semesters at Yale University.

The signal wasn’t great inside, he said, and it momentarily spared him from answering a direct question about his GPA his first semester as a college student.

Back on the call, the reigning world champion admitted, “I’m not gonna say the exact number, but there are some A’s and B’s sprinkled in.

“Really no complaints. I got pretty good grades. I’m pretty happy with that.”

His skating report card from the fall reads equally as impressively. Chen won the title at Skate America to open the season, followed by a come-from-behind win at Grand Prix France. To cap it all off, he won a second-consecutive Grand Prix Final title.

All this while the 2018 Olympic team event bronze medalist is across the country from his longtime coach Rafael Arutunian and trying out telecoaching for the first time.

Back in California between semesters, Chen said Raf has asked him to stay full-time.

“Since the past two weeks that I’ve been here, literally every day he’s been like, ‘you gotta come back! You gotta come back! There’s so much that you can learn at the rink. I respect what your decision is at Yale but it’s been so great having you here.’ He really wishes that I could stay here full time but at the same time, I already started this path and I don’t really want to pull out just yet.”

As for his second semester in college, Chen is signed up for about 10 courses and will have about two weeks at the beginning of term to add and drop courses. He’ll be in classes – he’s not exactly sure which, though – for a week before attempting to notch his third-straight U.S. national title.

“I selected a bunch of courses, probably selected like 10 different courses. I’ll go in and the first week I will see which courses I like, which courses I don’t like.”

Competing during the spring semester might be harder. February’s Four Continents Championships, this year to be held in Anaheim, Calif., aren’t during a scheduled academic break. Conveniently, world championships are scheduled during Yale’s spring break.

“I’m not sure yet [if he’ll compete there if named to the team],” he said. “That’s still TBD. I would love to since it’s in California, and it’s a great event. We’ll see.”

But for now, competing well in Detroit is the next step.

“I have to skate as well as I can and regardless of the external things,” he said when asked if coming in as the reigning world champion or as the favorite affects him. “Just focus on all the things that I can do right now in training to make sure that I do the best I can in competition.”

The men’s short program is Jan. 26 followed by the free skate on Jan. 27.

MORE: Adam Rippon’s new year’s resolutions

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships 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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Mikaela Shiffrin wins Kronplatz giant slalom for her 10th win of the season

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Mikaela Shiffrin won the women’s giant slalom at the World Cup stop in Kronplatz, Italy, on Tuesday, marking her 10th victory of the 2018-19 season and 53rd World Cup win of her career. Shiffrin, the 2018 Olympic giant slalom gold medalist, led France’s Tessa Worley by 1.39 seconds after the first run. Although Worley outpaced Shiffrin in the second run, Shiffrin’s massive first-run margin allowed her to win the two-run event by 1.21 seconds. Italy’s Marta Bassino placed third. Full results are here. 

Shiffrin entered Kronplatz ranked third in the World Cup giant slalom standings, but moves into first place with the win. The 23-year-old also leads the overall World Cup leader board, as well as the slalom and super-G discipline standings. Shiffrin has won seven World Cup globes in her career (two overall, five slalom).

Shiffrin has already broken multiple records this season, including becoming the youngest skier to win 50 World Cup races, and there are still more records within striking distance. Shiffrin could break the record for most World Cup wins in a single seasons; the current record (14) was set by Switzerland’s Vreni Schneider in 1988-89.

The next stop for the women’s World Cup is this weekend in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, with two downhills scheduled for Friday and Saturday, and a super-G slated for Sunday. Shiffrin plans to skip the downhills, but enter the super-G. Lindsey Vonn, who missed the start of the season with a knee injury, is expected to make her return to competition in Friday’s downhill.