Ten Breakout Stars from the 2021 World Championships (Women's Freestyle)

Akari Fujinami (left) and Irina Ringaci (Photo/UWW)

Remina Yoshimoto (JPN, 50 kg Champion) - Coming into the World Championships, Remina Yoshimoto was a bit of an unknown. She had the credentials typical of her other Japanese teammates- a Cadet World title and a pair of age-level Asian golds- but the 21-year old had yet to build much of a Senior-level resume. However, in Oslo, she absolutely stunned her opponents, notching three techfalls and a pin before upsetting returning Olympic bronze medalist Sarah Hildebrandt in the finals. Defeating Hildebrandt came as a surprise; the American had been on fire since moving down to 50 kilos, notching wins over many of the best women at the weight and looking poised as she teched her way to the finals. The title seemed like hers to win, but Yoshimoto proved the dominance of Japanese lightweight women with a strong finals outing.

Impressively, Yoshimoto is probably #3 on the domestic ladder in Japan, stuck behind Olympic Champion (and one of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers in the world), Yui Susaki, and 2019 World Team member Yuki Irie. Though she has had close matches with Susaki, Japan's crazy depth on the lower half of the weight classes means that it'll be difficult for Yoshimoto to even crack the Japanese World Team again. Despite this, her performance in Oslo was incredibly impressive and an excellent debut on the major international stage.

Otgonjargal Dolgarjav (MGL, 50 kg Bronze Medalist) - Otgonjargal Dolgarjav was not regarded as Mongolia's top 50-kilo athlete prior to the World Championships. The teenager was young, relatively inexperienced and remained home from Tokyo in favor of Namuuntsetseg Tsogt Ochir, who went winless at the Games (but still ended up placing 5th). However, the 2018 Cadet World Silver medalist made a huge, unexpected jump to senior level success by taking the bronze medal in Oslo over several formidable opponents.

Such a performance was entirely unexpected- at her first Senior-level tournament earlier this year, she went 1-2 at the Yariguin. In Oslo, however, she absolutely blew away all expectations by defeating two Olympians and World medalists on the way to notching her spot on the podium. Dolgarjav beat Evin Demirhan of Turkey in a decisive 11-2 bout before later earning a tech fall over two-time World finalist Emilia Vuc of Romania. Such strong results over well-established athletes was a pleasant surprise for the country of Mongolia, which had an impressive third-place team showing. Dolgarjav's future performances against some of the other women in the top tier at 50 kg should be paid close attention to.

Akari Fujinami (JPN, 53 kg Champion) - Prior to the start of the Senior World Championships, much of the women's wrestling buzz centered on one woman: a 17-year-old named Akari Fujinami. The hype arose after a string of outstanding domestic successes by the newly eligible senior in one of Japan's deepest domestic weight classes. In Japan's two national events leading to the selection of the World Team, Fujinami had to defeat two of the best women in the world: 2019 World Finalist Nanami Irie and two-time World Champion Haruna Okuno. She beat both opponents multiple times and with absolute dominance.

As a result, standards were high when Fujinami debuted in Oslo, but she rose to the occasion: facing 4 opponents, Fujinami notched tech falls over each and every one of them without giving up a point. The high schooler controlled grown women, never failing to get to her slick attacks, en route to winning her first Senior world title.

The real question now is what Fujinami can do next: Japan's domestic depth is such that reigning Olympic Champion Mayu Mukaida looms ahead of her before she can even consider returning to the world stage at the 53 kilos. Rumour has it that Akari can already compete with her in the practice room. Japan's domestic championships will be especially interesting as the inevitable matchup between the well-proven Mukaida and the incredible youngster looms in coming years.

Tsugumi Sakurai (JPN, 55 kg Champion) - Tsugumi Sakurai was the first woman crowned the title of World Champion in Oslo, and became the first of four of her countrymen to do so. The 20-year-old- still Junior eligible!- defeated two returning Olympians and experienced veteran Nina Hemmer en route to her first Senior World title. Her victory was a pleasant statement as to her senior-level talents and a nice addition to her slim international resume, which features only a 2016 Cadet World title and a 2019 Junior Asian Bronze medal.

However, Sakurai will be part of an interesting domestic dilemma as the Japanese look to fit their best talents onto their international lineups. Between the weights of 53 and 55 kilos, Japan has four women who have won world titles over the past quad: Olympic Champ Mukaida, two-time World Champ Okuno, and Oslo winners Fujinami and Sakurai. This list doesn't even include World Silver Medallist Nanami Irie or any of the age-level up-and-comers missed at this year's international events due to COVID. Where and how Sakurai fits in Japan's lineup remains to be seen, but she certainly has cemented herself as one of the best women on the planet regardless.

Oleksandra Khomenets (UKR, 55 kg Bronze Medalist) - Oleksandra Khomenets and the rest of her superpower Ukrainian Junior team experienced great disappointment in August: visa issues regarding travel to Russia for the Junior World Championships meant that the entire team wouldn't be able to attend. After a performance that saw the nation win seven Junior Euro WW titles- highlighted by Khomenets, whose three falls lead to her being voted as Outstanding WW of the tournament- the inability to prove themselves on the biggest stage was heartbreaking.

Khomenets was luckily afforded another shot to prove her skills: this time in Oslo, Norway, and she made the most of it. After a tough first match against soon-to-be World Champion Tsugumi Sakurai, the Ukrainian entered a highly challenging repechage bracket, where she wrestled two barn-burners against a pair of world medalists and returning Tokyo 2020 Olympians. Khomenets defeated 2017 World Bronze medalist Roksana Zasina of Poland before cruising to a similar victory over very talented Russian Olga Khoroshavtseva. Khomenets' exciting victories and ability to win matches over proven women with strong Senior-level resumes bodes well for her future on the international scene. Expect to see her settle into the non-Olympic 55 kg spot and immediately begin to contend amongst the top senior-level tier.

Anshu (IND, 57 kg Silver Medalist) - Women's wrestling in India has demonstrated significant growth in recent years. Strong age-level performances have already translated into Senior-level successes, and Anshu has been a textbook demonstration of this trend. The 20-year old had a fantastic Cadet career, highlighted by a 2017 World title along with bronze medals in the adjacent years. Her Senior-level debut, however, was what alerted wrestling fans to her potential: at the 2020 Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series, Anshu found her way to the finals in a loaded bracket. She had to go through 2019 World Champion Linda Morais, U23 World Champion Grace Bullen and Jenna Burkert in order to do so.

This fantastic performance preceded Anshu's qualification to the Olympic Games via the Asian OGQ, where she teched her way to an Olympic license. However, a challenging draw at the Games- facing Olympic silver medalists in both the first round and the repechage- left her winless. In Oslo, despite having recently suffered from an elbow injury, her talents really shone through and she gained her first world medal on the senior level.

Dominant defeats of Junior-level stars Raimova of Kazakhstan and Vynnyk of Ukraine, along with a 5-1 win over Mongolian veteran Erkhembayar, lead Anshu to the gold medal match. She wrestled a tactically sound first period against Helen, keeping the score close and largely controlling the pace of the match. Though she was no match for the American superstar's ferocious armbar, Anshu proved that she has the skills and tactics to compete and win on the highest levels of the sport. Anshu has many years of wrestling and athletic success left in her and this should be only the beginning of an illustrious career.

Nonoka Ozaki (JPN, 62 kg Bronze Medalist) - Nonoka Ozaki's international debut came about at the 2018 Cadet World Championships, where she defeated her four opponents to win a Cadet World title in a combined two minutes. She repeated her dominant performance at the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina before winning her second Cadet World title in 2019, this time in three minutes. It was immediately clear that she was levels ahead of the other competitors her age and thus, her transition to the senior level was highly anticipated. And she didn't disappoint: in her domestic debut, she outplaced two other age-level world champions and World Silver Medallist Rin Miyaji just to make the Japanese team.

In Oslo, Ozaki proved that her domestic success was no fluke. Right out the gate, she drew defending World Champion Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan. The young star racked up two quick takedowns to put the experienced veteran down 4-0 early. However, Tynybekova's wily nature and persistence kept her in the match as she turned it up in the second period to defeat Ozaki 6-4. Despite this defeat, Ozaki's performance was more than impressive; she battled her way back to a bronze medal with wins over Veranika Ivanova of Belarus and Ilona Prokopevniuk of Ukraine. Though she managed to come away from her first Senior World Championships with hardware, Ozaki looked far from pleased on the podium. Her social media posts reflected her apparent disappointment with her bronze-medal finish in Oslo. This will inevitably light a fire in the young Japanese competitor as she faces her next uphill battle: making the Japanese world team over Olympic Champion Yukako Kawai.

Irina Ringaci (MDA, 65 kg Champion) - To those watching Ringaci as she advanced through the age-level ranks, this performance was no surprise. In fact, it was only a matter of time. The Moldovan had been achieving formidable results in a variety of competitions; a growing collection of World and European medals on the age-level scene quickly turned into tangible Senior-level results, including a World Cup silver medal and a European title. The 20-year old started to dominate much of her competition at 65 kilos, avenging past losses and assuming a position on the top tier at the non-Olympic weight. In Oslo, she earned her second world title of 2021 after also taking top honors from Junior Worlds in August.

Ringaci's victory at the World Championships marked the first senior world title for a Moldovan woman, a monumental success for the poor country. Limited resources are available to the athletes of this former Soviet nation; Ringaci trains in a small, beat-up room, barely the size of one wrestling mat, with next to no supplementary training equipment. Fifteen women crowd in this room, lacking proper sanitation and safety equipment, though they are sometimes given access to a national training facility prior to major events. Ringaci's next challenge will be qualifying for the Olympic Games in 2024; she has struggled to fit into either 62 or 68 kilos, but will look to attend her first Olympics in Paris next quad.

Rin Miyaji (JPN, 68 kg Silver Medalist) - Japan's women's wrestlers, as demonstrated by the heavily credentialed young team in Oslo, have traditionally been able to accumulate ample age-level success. On a team where 9 of the 10 women had already earned world titles, international unknown Miyaji stuck out. She owned only a 2017 Cadet Asian title and a 2019 Junior Asian silver medal (where she lost to eventual 2021 World Champ Zhumanazarova) and had no major international wins. After not accomplishing her goals down at 62 kilos at the first domestic Japanese event, she made the decision to move up two weight classes to 68 kilos to try to make the world team. There, she overcame the adversity to defeat age-level World Champ Naruha Matsuyuki twice in order to make the Japanese world team and represent her country in Oslo.

In an interview following her win at the Japanese World Team Trials- known as the Meiji Cup- Miyaji spoke about how she changed her focus to improving her defense and getting stronger. With the help of four-time Olympic Champion Kaori Icho, Miyaji sharpened her style and came into the World Championships more than prepared. Her hard work was evidenced by the biggest upset of the tournament: a cradle and fall over defending Olympic Champion Tamyra Mensah-Stock. Though Miyaji fell in the finals to Zhumanazarova, her win over Mensah-Stock and all-around solid showing proved that the biggest question mark on Japan's lineup was as much of the real deal as any of their other very talented women. Miyaji now has a huge result to add to her growing international resume and it will be interesting to see how she fares against Rio Olympic Champ Sara Dosho as the future of Japan at this weight class looks to be resolved.

Khanum Velieva (RWF, 68 kg Bronze Medalist) - The Russian women's wrestling program has long been one of the most successful in the world. However, a recent down performance at the 2020 Olympics that saw them bring home no medals meant that the Russian women needed a redeeming performance in Oslo. The young team brought home two bronze medals, led by the highly-touted Khanum Velieva. Velieva was recognized early on as a prime prospect after winning three age-level world titles, and immediately began to succeed upon her transition to the senior level. She qualified Russia to the Olympics at the European OGQ and also picked up a European title, a World Cup bronze and a Euro silver.

Velieva's performance in Oslo proved that she had reached a level where she could compete on the top tier of 68 kg women. She took out returning Tokyo silver medallist Blessing Oborududu in a wild 8-7 match before meeting Meerim Zhumanazarova of Kyrgyzstan in the semifinals. The match ended 3-3 on criteria; an error by the referee initially

displayed Velieva's lead on the score clock, but that was corrected to reflect a win for Zhumanazarova after the match. The Russian redeemed herself after the heartbreaking, unjust semifinal loss with a close victory over solid Canadian Olivia Di Bacco, bringing home her first Senior World medal.

The Krasnoyarsk native is of Azerbaijani heritage and discovered wrestling after attending the Ivan Yariguin with her uncle when she was young. Velieva will look to lead a new generation of Russian women's wrestlers to international success as many of their recent Senior level stars enter the twilights of their careers.


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