TOKYO (Reuters) - Despite her small stature and penchant for fluffy socks, Japanese wrestler Saori Yoshida could be the most intimidating athlete in any sport at this year’s London Olympics.
Yoshida, the gold medallist in the 2004 and 2008 women’s 55-kg division, has never tasted defeat at an Olympics or a world or Asian championships and believes no-one can stop her in her quest for a hat-trick of Olympic titles.
Along with a remarkable nine successive world crowns, a third Olympic gold would allow her to equal the record 12 global titles won by Greco-Roman great Alexander Karelin of Russia.
“If I wrestle the way I can, I won’t lose,” Yoshida told reporters at an open training session on Tuesday, sitting on the wrestling mats in a sweatsuit and fluffy white socks. “That’s the way I feel going to London.”
The 29-year-old’s confidence comes from having lost just once since 2001, when her astonishing 119-match winning run came to a shock end at a World Cup team event in 2008.
“Fear is there. Anything can happen at an Olympics,” said Yoshida, wrinkling her nose, though the comment sounded a touch hollow given her iron-fisted rule at lightweight.
“I want to use the experience I gained from Athens and Beijing - the fear too - and build a me that can’t lose,” she added with a steely grin.
“I will do everything to make sure I win a third gold medal in London. That target drives me. I‘m bulking up and have more power now. I’ll be fighting fit to take the gold back home.”
Yoshida, who stands at 1.56 metres, overpowered Canada’s Tonya Verbeek in the 2004 Athens Olympic final and beat China’s Xu Li in Beijing four years ago.
“I’ve experienced two Olympics and the atmosphere. If you get sucked into the pressure of it, you’ll get punished,” said Yoshida, who began wrestling at the age of three.
Yoshida mentioned Verbeek and little-known opponents from China and North Korea when pushed about potential threats, but failed to convey any real sense of concern.
“With China and North Korea, you never know who you’ll fight,” said Yoshida, who fights men in training to boost her power.
”The faces are always changing and suddenly young opponents come up.
“It’s all about winning at the Olympics, not about winning pretty. I’ll just keep trying to improve, add more muscle power and make sure I‘m the last one standing.”
Unbeaten in 157 matches in individual competition, Yoshida promised to help bring some cheer to the victims of last year’s deadly tsunami in northeast Japan.
”Japan lost so much energy and its smile after the disaster,“ she told Reuters. ”As wrestlers we have to give every ounce to help restore that energy and make people smile again.
“We don’t talk about the disaster much between ourselves, although seeing the news on TV you do get that strong feeling of responsibility.”
Yoshida added: “I will go in with the right attitude, feeling strong, feeling unbeatable and not let the pressure get to you. That’s what decides who wins gold.”
Editing by Clare Fallon