Kaori Icho with the Japan flag after winning her fourth Olympic title (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Kaori Icho will now have an even tougher time trying to earn her fifth Olympic gold medal.
Icho, the legendary Japanese wrestler who is the only female athlete to have won four Olympic championships in any individual competition in any sport, failed to qualify for this fall's World Wrestling Championships on Saturday.
Icho lost her 57 kilogram/125-pound qualification playoff match against Risako Kawai, Japan's gold medalist at 63 kilograms/138 pounds at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. By defeating Icho this weekend, Kawai will represent Japan at the Worlds in Kazakhstan in September.
The Worlds are the main qualifying event for next year's Tokyo Olympics. If Kawai makes the podium in Kazakhstan this fall, she will clinch Japan's lone available berth for the 2020 Olympics at 62 kilograms/136 pounds.
Icho, who won gold at 58 kilograms/127 pounds at the Rio Games, and Kawai, split previous matches in December and June, marking Icho's first defeat to a countrywoman in 17 years. Kawai moved down in weight for this Olympic cycle and into direct competition with Icho.
"Now I wait," Icho told the Japan Times. "[Five straight Olympic golds] is a rare feat, something highly out of the ordinary. My desire going forward to attract people to wrestling -- either as a competitor or a coach -- is unchanged."
The 35-year-old Icho also admitted, "Frankly, this is frustrating. Making up for that hiatus was difficult and that has played a part."
Icho only returned to competition last October after bullying charges against her former coach had been resolved. She finished on top in December at the All-Japan Championships but lost in June's National Invitational Wrestling Championships to Kawai, sending the two into Saturday's qualifying playoffs.
Icho is truly an icon in freestyle wrestling, having won 14 gold medals in global competition. In addition to her four Olympic gold medals from the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Games, Icho has earned gold at 10 World Championships going back to 2002.