<
>

Japan wins two gold medals

8/24/2004

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.