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Saturday, Aug. 11, 2012

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Long road: Hitomi Obara (right) had a lot of support on her way to winning Olympic gold. AP

ODDS AND EVENS

Supporters helped propel Icho, Obara to gold


LONDON — Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, is not known for being Party Central. But that changed in a big way when freestyle wrestlers Kaori Icho and Hitomi Obara doubled Japan's gold medal total on Wednesday, making their hometown proud and bringing immense joy to Tohoku.

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Second to none: Kaori Icho is leaving the Olympic Games with a gold medal for the third consecutive time. AFP-JIJI

The locals will make many a toast to the grapplers, with or without their presence. (I'm sure, though, they'll be honored to attend a few parties in Hachinohe. Wouldn't you be if you were in their shoes?)

Life's about celebrating special moments.

Wednesday provided two of them.

Just ask anybody who cares deeply about Icho and Obara and future generations of Japanese wrestling — or heck, anyone who likes a nice success story.

Heaven knows the Tohoku region can use any good news, any positive inspiration, in the aftermath of March 11, 2011. Rebuilding the region will take decades, and people's lives will never be the same throughout Honshu's northern prefectures.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the toughness Japanese women continue to display in one-on-one fighting sports. Wrestling and judo are sports that show the world their fighting spirit, their guts and their smarts in the spotlight.

Along with Kaori Matsumoto, the judoka who captured Japan's first gold of the London Games, Icho made special history in London.

Icho is the first three-time women's wrestling Olympic champion. She retained the 63-kg title she captured in Athens and won again in Beijing.

Obara endured the heartache of missing the 2008 Beijing Games at 55 kg. This time, there was no doubt that her long-time struggles provided a Japanese narrative similar to the joy expressed by Allyson Felix, the American sprinter who won an individual track gold at the Olympics for the first time on Thursday by outclassing the field in the 200 meters.

"As I have waited for 12 years to compete at the Olympic Games, I was thinking that it's been a long time coming," Obara told reporters after receiving her cherished gold medal. "On the other hand, I also thought about how time flies. I became nervous because this is my first Olympic Games."

The 31-year-old Obara now has a day in her life — four years to the day exactly from the 2008 Beijing Games' Opening Ceremony, when she wanted to be there with every ounce of her being — she'll never forget.

Koji Obara, her husband, played an instrumental supporting role in keeping Hitomi's mind at ease in the buildup to the Olympics. Smart guy. Chalk up an assist for him.

"My husband handed a letter to me before I left Japan," Obara revealed, remembering a poignant moment in her pre-Olympic wrestling tournament preparations. "It says, 'There is no devil at the Olympic Games.' As I read this letter, I was able to stay calm as I usually am (at training)."

Icho, 27, thrived thanks to positive energy from the crowd, and she was humbled enough to admit as much.

"Most of the spectators were Japanese, I think," Icho said after adding another medal to collection. "I could only hear Japanese cheering voices..."

Among the voices at ExCel was Chiharu Icho, Kaori's older sister and two-time silver medalist wrestler.

"Chiharu cheered me on in very good timing," Icho said, "so I could hear her voice clearly and get relaxed.

"It was like a voice from heaven."

Koji Obara and Chiharu Icho gave us all a valuable reminder about the role family members play in helping athletes succeed. A few positive words never hurt. Offering encouragement is never a bad thing. Just being there for our loved ones is a key piece to the puzzle.

Japan's gold-medal haul on Wednesday was a terrific accomplishment, not unlike the 11 medals head coach Norimasa Hirai's swimmers earned earlier in the 2012 Summer Games.

Let's recap: Icho and Obara delivered the goods at Excel, and both ladies fought courageously and brought pride to their coach, Kazuhito Sakae, their hometown, the entire Tohoku region, as well as to Japan and anyone who appreciates compelling drama.

Watching the wrestling competition in London, Associated Press sports writer Luke Meredith tweeted, "Kaori Icho is such a good wrestler that she almost looks annoyed that no one can challenge her."

That sums it up quite eloquently, in my opinion.

Listening to what Icho actually said after having a gold medal placed around her neck makes you want to wish her nothing but success in all she does in her life. She's a terrific role model in the gym, working day after day to perfect her craft, and in the public eye.

"I want to go back to Japan soon to thank the people who supported me," said Icho.

This isn't about Icho, this is about the best qualities one can possess, including genuine gratitude for the people who have helped them succeed.

You can't help but smile after watching, listening to or reading about the gold medal-winning grapplers from Hachinohe.

And now it's time for a party.



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