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Thursday, May 31, 2012

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Unexpected: Russia's Valeria Zholobova celebrates after ending Saori Yoshida's 58-match winning streak on Sunday in the 55-kg final at the World Cup meet in Tokyo. AFP-JIJI

SPORTS SCOPE

Yoshida returns focus to Olympic three-peat after rare defeat


Incredibly long winning streaks come as natural to Saori Yoshida as enjoying ice cream cones on hot summer days for the rest of us.

Ed Odeven

For the record, freestyle wrestler Yoshida's 58-match winning streak came to an end on Sunday at the World Cup meet in Tokyo. Russia's Valeria Zholobova, just 19 years old, was the better grappler in their match. For anyone else, 58 straight wins would seem like an out-of-this-world accomplishment. For Yoshida, however, the bar is set so high, that a loss, any loss, is a jaw-dropping, stop-the-presses shocker.

"Going to London will mean nothing if I don't three-peat, so I have to fix the problems which need addressing," Yoshida was quoted as saying by Kyodo News after Sunday's defeat at Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

She is, after all, a two-time gold medalist, and one of Japan's biggest medal hopefuls for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Nobody likes to lose, but who says this is a bad time for Yodida to taste defeat? In fact, it probably came at the best possible time. It may even lessen the pressure of having to keep the streak alive in order to attain gold; at least those were my initial thoughts on Sunday after watching a replay of the Yoshida-Zholobova match on TV.

The 29-year-old Mie Prefecture native probably didn't need any additional motivation to be fired up for her third Olympics, but this will surely push her to be more focused on her techniques and conditioning in the weeks before the competition commences in London.

And no one can excuse her of fearing the spotlight, as evidenced by her decade of dominance in national (10 consecutive titles) and international (victories at nine straight world championship since 2002) competitions.

You can argue that Yoshida doesn't face the wealth of talent that athletes must contend with in other sports, but that doesn't cheapen her accomplishment. The sport may not appear to have as many elite-level competitors as, say, figure skating or tennis, but there are skilled practitioners throughout the world who have what it takes for greatness.

In addition, she has been so good for so long that any loss is a major headline. Which takes us back to January 2008, when Yoshida's 119-match winning streak ended against American Marcie Van Dusen in Taiyuan, China.

It wasn't the end of the world, of course.

"It is a big shock to lose my first match at an international meet," she told reporters after the match. "I realize I have to train even harder."

That loss, too, arguably came at the right time. Yoshida diligently prepared for the Beijing Games and, as stated above, collected another gold medal.

Don't expect Sunday's setback to decrease Yoshida's workload or preparations for London. Instead, expect tackling, as noted by AFP-Jiji in its story after Yoshida's Sunday defeat, to be the key area of emphasis she works on with her coach, Kazuhito Sakae.

"After losing, I really struggled for six months to get back on my feet, and today I couldn't help but feel anxious," Yoshida was quoted as saying after winning the gold in 2008. "I went for two straight titles, but compared to Athens there was so much more built up inside me this time. I aim to three-peat in London in 2012."

As they say in Hollywood and beyond, the plot thickens.



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