Japan wins two gold medals

Updated: August 24, 2004, 2:19 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- For five minutes, Sara McMann wrestled well enough to get a gold medal. For one final minute, she didn't.

That left a tearful McMann with the silver, and at least four years for the only American finalist in the debut of Olympic women's wrestling to replay what went wrong.

In a furious final period, Japan's Kaori Icho scored three takedowns to win 3-2 in the 138½-pound (63-kg) final Monday -- McMann's second tough loss to Icho in less than a year.

McMann was inconsolable, sobbing on the medals podium and throughout her news conference. It wasn't just because she lives in a country that fawns over gold medals and ho-hums over those of another color, but because she felt she could do better.

"I just felt like I did everything I could, worked as hard as I could," said McMann, who, like many U.S. female wrestlers, grew up competing on boys teams.

"Sara doesn't need to hang her head," U.S. coach Terry Steiner said. "She doesn't want the silver medal right now but, she'll come to realize it was a great accomplishment."

McMann's reddened, sorrowful eyes told a different story. The 23-year-old McMann was in control for two-thirds of the match, but Icho began to score by staying away from McMann's superior upper-body strength and attacking her around the ankles with quick, tough-to-defend moves.

The two know each other well; they've trained together, and Icho also beat her by a point in an extended overtime match in last year's world finals in New York.

"She's my best rival," Icho said. "When our eyes meet, we smile and sometimes it's a bitter smile."

Compounding McMann's pain was the fact she had dedicated these Olympics to the memory of her late brother, Jason. She got into the sport by tagging along to his weekend matches, only to be left heartbroken when he was slain five years ago. A former Lock Haven University football player goes on trial in his death later this fall.

"It happened a long time ago and the pain has eased," McMann said. "It only comforts me that my brother would be proud of me either way."

Icho's sister, Chiharu, was a heartbreak loser on a tiebreaker to defending world champion Irina Merleni of Ukraine for the gold at 105½ pounds (48kg), a loss Chiharu feared might negatively influence her sister's match.

"When Chiharu lost I went blank," Kaori said. "I couldn't think of anything. But then she came back and told me, `Have courage and attack.' "

Because she did, it left the United States with only a silver and bronze from its four wrestlers. Patricia Miranda, the former Stanford men's team wrestler who lost 9-0 to Merleni in the semifinals, came back to beat Angelique Berthenet of France 12-4 for the bronze.

"The only thing I know is, I'm leaving here after giving it my all," said Miranda, who enters Yale Law School next month. "I didn't care if I lost as long as I gave everything I had."

Japan's dominant women's team also was disappointed to take home only two golds -- it expected four -- after star 158½-pounder Kyoko Hamaguchi was upset by 18-year-old Wang Xu of China 6-4 in the semifinals.

Even Wang didn't think she could beat the five-time world champion, and had trouble explaining how she did.

"I did not expect to win the gold," said Wang, who beat Gouzel Maniourova of Russia 7-2 for the gold. "Before the competition, I just planned to do my best. I'm so excited."

There was confusion throughout the final two minutes because the actual score repeatedly differed from that on the scoreboard, possibly affecting how Hamaguchi wrestled. The outcome so angered her father, longtime Japanese pro wrestling star Heigo "The Animal" Hamaguchi, that police restrained him from running onto the mat.

"We have been training very hard together, 365 days a year, for many years together," his daughter said in his defense. "When we experience a loss, both of us share the feeling of depression together."

Hamaguchi also refused to fault the scoring, saying, "When you lose, you lose. This time, I am the loser."

In the other final, world champion Saori Yoshida defeated Tonya Verbeek of Canada 6-0 for the gold at 121 pounds (55kg).

The other two U.S. wrestlers, Tela O'Donnell (121 pounds) and Toccara Montgomery (158{ pounds) lost in the consolation round and didn't finish in the top six in their weight classes.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press