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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

Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

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Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

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Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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