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Japanese wrestling legend Saori Yoshida announces retirement

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Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida announced her retirement via Twitter on Tuesday. The three-time Olympic gold medalist and 13-time world champion retires as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time.

Yoshida made her senior debut in 2002 and went on to win her first 119 international matches (a win streak that lasted until January 2008). She made her Olympic debut at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the first Games at which women’s wrestling was contested, and claimed one of the inaugural women’s gold medals in the sport. After losing her first international match in January 2008, Yoshida rebounded by successfully defending her Olympic title at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Yoshida was selected as Japan’s flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics and she went on to win a third-straight Olympic gold medal at those Games. A few weeks later at the 2012 World Championships, she broke the record for most consecutive world or Olympic titles by claiming her 13th-straight (the previous record of 12 had been held by Russian legend Aleksandr Karelin). With three more world titles in 2013, 2014, and 2015, she entered the 2016 Rio Olympics having won 16-straight world or Olympic titles.

But in Rio, Yoshida was denied a fourth Olympic title by American Helen Maroulis, who defeated the Japanese great to become the first-ever American to win an Olympic gold medal in women’s wrestling. It marked Yoshida’s third loss in international competition — and first at a major event.

Yoshida started wrestling at the age of three under the guidance of her father, Eikatsu, a former Japanese national champion who built a dojo in the family’s home to introduce Yoshida and her two older brothers to the sport. Eikatsu went on to become Yoshida’s longtime personal coach, in addition to serving as a coach for the Japanese national women’s team. Eikastu died in 2014 after suffering a brain hemorrhage. Less than a week later, Yoshida helped the Japanese team win gold at the World Cup.

Yoshida has not competed since claiming silver at the 2016 Rio Games. The 36-year-old says she plans to pursue a career as an actor/TV personality.

Japan Olympic legend avenges first home loss in 17 years in comeback

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Japanese wrestler Kaori Icho is off to a strong start in a bid to be the first person to earn individual gold medals at five Olympics.

Icho, 34, won a national title after taking two years off after the Rio Games, beating fellow Olympic champion Risako Kawai in Sunday’s 57kg final. A day earlier, Kawai handed Icho her first loss to a countrywoman in 17 years, according to Kyodo News.

This weekend’s Emperor’s Cup was the first event of a two-pronged qualification for September’s world championships and is the first tournament with Olympic qualifying implications in Japan, according to United World Wrestling.

“I felt a kind of nervous tension like I hadn’t in a long time,” Icho said of her second tournament back, according to Kyodo. “I still have room to grow, to improve, and now I want to take stock of the issues that arose with my performance today and make use of those lessons.”

Icho earned 58kg gold in Rio, while Kawai, a decade younger, was the 63kg champion. Kawai earned 59kg and 60kg world titles the last two years.

The weight classes alter slightly for Tokyo 2020 with 57kg and 62kg divisions.

Icho once held a 13-year win streak and owns 10 world championships.

She is already the oldest female Olympic wrestling champion (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.

Icho is the lone woman to earn individual gold medals at four Olympics, joining a group of men including Michael PhelpsCarl Lewis and Al Oerter.

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MORE: Jordan Burroughs reaches out to wrestler forced by referee to cut dreadlocks

Jordan Burroughs reaches out to wrestler forced by referee to cut dreadlocks

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Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs offered his support to fellow New Jersey wrestler Andrew Johnson, who was forced by a referee to cut his dreadlocks in order to compete on Wednesday night.

Johnson, who is black, had a cover over his hair, but referee Alan Maloney, who is white, said that wouldn’t do.

Burroughs posted and spoke on social media early Saturday morning after researching what happened. Maloney was recommended by New Jersey’s high school athletics association not to be assigned to any events while the matter is under review.

Burroughs, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion, said that Maloney was a referee for some of his matches while in high school. Burroughs’ school is 15 miles north of Johnson’s school.

“Let me tell you how sickening this is,” was tweeted from Burroughs’ account. “I’ve been wrestling for 25 years, at every level, and I have never once seen a person required to cut their hair during a match. This is nonsense. As a referee, you are required to check the hair and nails of all wrestlers BEFORE a match. My opinion is that this was a combination of an abuse of power, racism, and just plain negligence.”

Wrestlers are allowed to wear legal hair covers during matches, according to wrestling rules set by the National Federation of State High School Associations, NJ.com reports. If a wrestler’s hair in its natural state extends below the earlobe on the sides or touches the top of a normal shirt, it’s required to be secured in a hair cover.

Maloney came under fire in 2016 for using a racial slur against a black referee, according to the Courier Post newspaper. At a private gathering between officials at a condominium, Maloney allegedly poked referee Preston Hamilton, who is black, in the chest and allegedly used a racial slur during an argument over homemade wine. Hamilton slammed Maloney to the ground, according to the Courier Post.

Maloney told the newspaper he did not remember making the comments.

After Hamilton reported the incident, Maloney agreed to participate in sensitivity training and an alcohol awareness program. Maloney was to be suspended for one year for his use of the slur and Hamilton would receive the same suspension for assaulting Maloney. Both officials appealed their suspensions, which were overturned.

Burroughs said he would reach out to Johnson, calling him brave and courageous in a four-minute Instagram video:

“I didn’t want to talk about it or post anything on social until I actually was educated and knowledgeable about specifically what happened. Now that I’ve done a little bit of research, I feel like I can speak from a position in which I know what I’m talking about a little bit. …

“No. 1, Andrew Johnson, the young man that wrestled last night, congratulations on your overtime win and winning the dual for your teammate. That was a very courageous and a very brave thing that you did. … 

“The fact that with all the adversity and racism that you were facing in the moment, that you were still able to stay focused and go out there and get the W for your team, I respect that about your team.

“The fact that the parents and the coaching staff in that gymnasium allowed for you to be put in this position and didn’t protect you is absolutely shameful because although in that moment with the pressure of your peers and the dual victory on the line, I know that going out there and cutting your hair and getting your hand raised seemed like sticking it to the ref, but ultimately, you know what would have been more powerful? Walking away and saying, you know what, I’m keeping my hair. But man, I can imagine it must have been tough out there on the mat, right? …

“But it wasn’t your job. It was the parents’ job, and you guys let him down. The bottom line is this young man, especially young man in a traditionally and predominantly caucasian sport out there defenseless. You guys gotta help this young man. You’ve got to protect him. In high school, as you’re growing and you’re developing, you’re establishing who you are, you’re creating an identity. I know, as a young black man, how much my hair meant to me. And I also know, as a black man, how long it takes to grow dreads and how much discipline it takes to maintain them.

“The fact that you guys allow him to cut them matside? Look at this man after the match. He won the dual. He won the match in overtime. He showed no excitement, no exhilaration, no celebration. He just shook hands, and he walked off. That was for you guys. It wasn’t for him. So, as excited as you guys were in the stands, deep down inside he was hurting. He was hurt. And that wasn’t fair. So, Andrew, I’m sorry. Parents, come on, we’ve got to do better. Coaches, we’ve got to do better.

“As much as Andrew wanted to be the hero here, coaches, parents, adults, we have to intervene. Alan Maloney, bro, come on, you’ve got to stopped, dog. Like, you have been a referee since I was a kid. You reffed some of my matches when I was in high school, and this isn’t the first incident that you’ve had in South Jersey. I had a lot of respect for you, and I still have a lot of respect for you as a referee, but as an individual, as a man of character and integrity, there’s no way. Listen, you’ve got to step away from the stripes for a second. Put the whistle down and be a man. …

“[Maloney] can’t do this to a young dude. It’s a struggle for him. And it will be because now he’s got to go back to the crib with his head chopped. He went viral for something that he didn’t want to go viral for. Right? So now you’ve got to pay the consequences of your actions and the things that you did. 

“Basically, the bottom line is, Andrew, I’m sorry. Alan, you’ve got to be stopped. Man, you’re going to face consequences, and rightfully so. Parents and coaches, I love you guys. Continue to harbor a safe environment for this dude, right? Give him love. Give him respect. Give him honor. Encourage him. Andrew, you’re the man. I appreciate you. I’m going to be in contact with you very soon. So if you are listening to this, please send me a DM. I want to get in touch with you. I’m going to send you a few cool things for Christmas. I know it won’t help ease the pain, but hopefully it gives you a little bit of love.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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