At 25, Risako Kawai is three years older than her sister Yukako. At the Rio Games in 2016, she won the gold medal in the 63kg division but in qualifying for this summer’s event, she opted for the 57kg tournament, effectively leaving the pathway open for her younger sibling to make it through to her first-ever Olympics in the 63kg class. “I don’t feel as though I am moving down a weight for the Tokyo Games,” Risako tells TW. “Before 2016, I usually fought in categories at 60kg or below. In Rio, I decided to go up to compete in the 63kg, so you could say that I am now returning to where I came from.”
“Risako was advised to change the class she was in so she wouldn’t have to face [Kaori] Icho in the qualification process for Brazil,” adds Yukako. “Before then, she favored the lower weight so in this year’s Olympics we will both be competing in what we feel is our best category. As a result, the hope is that we will be able to perform to our maximum capacity.”
The pair’s journey to the XXXII Olympiad began in the early 2000s when they were both at elementary school. Hailing from a family with strong wrestling traditions, it came as no surprise that they took up the sport. Their father was a champion Greco-Roman wrestler at school while their mother was even more successful, finishing seventh in the 53kg division at the 1989 World Championships. “It was our mom who first started teaching us [at the Kanazawa Wrestling Junior Club],” says Yukako. “With both our parents being wrestlers, I suppose it was natural that we did it as well. My elder sister had joined up, so my younger sister and I followed. I began when I was in the second grade but was initially reluctant to take part. I eventually grew to love the sport.”
“With both our parents being wrestlers, I suppose it was natural that we did it as well”
Not wanting to use her position to foster nepotism, their mother was strict with her daughters, all of whom showed real promise from an early age. Risako, in particular, impressed, finishing second in the 33kg category at the National Youth Wrestling Championships when she was in her final year at elementary school. She later went on to win gold at the 2013 and 2014 World Youth Championships.
At the 2015 World Championships in Las Vegas, Risako made her international debut in the 63kg division. Having little trouble adapting to the new weight, she defeated defending champion Yulia Tkach (Ukraine) on the way to the final before losing to Mongolia’s Soronzonboldyn Battsetseg.
That silver medal in America guaranteed Risako a place at the Rio Olympics as long as she participated in the national championships. The then 21-year-old naturally obliged and reached the final of the domestic tournament where she came face-to-face with a familiar adversary: her younger sister Yukako. The older sibling proved too strong for the third-year high school student, winning the bout by technical fall (achieved by outscoring your opponent by 10 points).
“It was a wonderful situation for me,” says Risako. “I was comfortable knowing that my place at Rio was assured no matter what the result of the competition. To then reach the final and face Yukako, that was a very happy moment.”
Risako was confident going into the tournament in Rio and showed her class from the off. Despite being shorter and lighter than all of her opponents in Brazil, she sailed through the qualifying rounds, dropping just two points along the way. In the final, she outclassed Belarus’ Maryia Mamashuk with a comprehensive 6-0 victory before celebrating her gold medal by famously delivering two fireman’s carry takedowns on her coach Kazuhito Sakae.
“Wrestling in Rio was like nothing I had ever experienced before”
“Wrestling in Rio was like nothing I had ever experienced before,” recalls Risako. “It was completely different from other competitions I had been in. It was so exciting, and I could really feel the support from the crowd, which was amazing.”
“I was watching with my parents,” continues Yukako. “At that time, I had a shoulder injury and was not practicing satisfactorily. Until then, competing at the Olympics seemed so far away for me, but after seeing my sister win the gold medal, my desire to participate at the Games alongside her grew quickly.”
A year after Rio, the Kawai sisters competed together for the first time in a world championship. At the event held in Paris, Risako defeated America’s Alli Ragan in the final of the 60kg category to win her maiden world title while Yukako finished eighth in the 63kg class.
Risako continued to dominate at the next two championships topping the podium (in the 59kg and 57kg categories) in Budapest and Nur-Sultan. To qualify for the event in Kazakhstan, she had to first triumph at the nationals which meant overcoming one of Japan’s greatest-ever Olympians: four-time gold-medalist Kaori Icho.
“It was a great experience for me to go up against Icho, as it was to take on all the competitors at the national and world championships,” says Risako. “It wasn’t just about Icho and me. Everyone gave what they could to try to qualify for Tokyo 2020. The challenge was tough, and I was delighted to get through.”
It was a double celebration in Nur-Sultan for the Kawai sisters with Yukako confirming her participation at the Olympics by winning a bronze medal in the 63kg competition. A silver medalist the previous year, she lost in the quarter-finals to eventual winner Aisuluu Tynybekova, before coming back strongly in the repechage.
“I think there was a lot for me to reflect on from the tournament in Kazakhstan,” says Yukako. “There are areas I need to improve on. Ultimately, though, I was delighted and relieved to achieve my goal of qualifying for this year’s main event. That was the minimum target.”
Appearing at the world’s biggest and most famous sporting spectacle has been a goal of Yukako’s since she was a child. Seeing her older sister excel at the 2016 Games in Rio simply reinforced that desire. In a country like Japan, where the competition is fierce, qualifying for Tokyo 2020 is a formidable achievement in itself. Now, the two women want to push themselves even harder to achieve something special on home soil.
“My sister and I are aiming to win a gold medal each,” says Yukako. “We don’t want to specify a particular athlete as a rival as there are many strong wrestlers from overseas. The important thing is to focus on what we do and not think about anyone else.”
Japan’s Other Wrestling Contenders
The two-time world champion was defeated by North Korea’s Pak Yong-mi in the final of the 53kg at last year’s tournament in Kazakhstan.
The veteran narrowly lost out to America’s Adeline Gray in the 76kg final at last year’s World Championships. It was her third successive medal at the event.
The Yamanashi Prefecture native regained the world title last year with a 10-5 victory over Russia’s Sergey Emelin in the men’s Greco-Roman 60kg final.
The 2018 world champion booked his place at the Tokyo Games by beating Rinya Nakamura in the 65kg freestyle final at last year’s nationals.
Photographs by Sachiko Hotaka