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The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Two high school students figure to capture the attention of spectators at this week’s Grand Slam Tokyo, and might just be the judo stars of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, or even the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The teenaged pair won titles at the prestigious Kodokan Cup last month, and next face off against veteran domestic and international judoka at the upcoming competition, the lone international tournament in Japan. On the men’s side is Hifumi Abe, the youngest male Kodokan winner at 17, and on the women’s side is 18-year-old Sara Asahina, who won back-to-back Kodokan titles.
Abe will look to take down three-time world champion Masashi Ebinuma in the 66-kilogram class, while Asahina will enter the over-78 kilogram class, which includes this year’s world championship bronze medalist Megumi Tachimoto.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sara Asahina, right, competes with Manami Inoue during the over-78-kg final of the Kodokan Cup.
In November 2009, Ebinuma made headlines by knocking off two-time Olympic gold medalist Masato Uchishiba en route to winning the Kodokan Cup All-Japan Weight Class Championships as an up-and-coming 19-year-old. A month later, he bagged the inaugural Grand Slam Tokyo title.
All eyes are on whether Abe can follow similar footsteps by beating Ebinuma himself.
Abe, who also won this year’s Youth Olympics and the All-Japan junior championships, got past judoka from universities and corporate clubs to become the first male high school student to win the November Kodokan Cup since Satoshi Ishii did so 2004. Ishii later become a gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The tournament was Abe’s first top-level competition. “I wanted to be aggressive because I was the challenger,” said the second-year student at Shinko Gakuen High School in Kobe. “Now I know I can have success against older and more experienced judoka.”
The highlight of his performance came during his third-round match against Masaaki Fukuoka, who was third at last year’s world championships.
Knowing his 30-year-old opponent had the advantage in establishing better grips, Abe did not bother trying to get good position, and instead kept on applying his techniques aggressively.
Beginning to struggle under pressure by Abe, Fukuoka made a desperate attempt to throw Abe. The 17-year-old did not miss the opportunity — he firmly grabbed the upper part of Fukuoka’s uniform to execute a floating drop, slamming Fukuoka to the tatami for ippon in 1 minute 41 seconds.
Japan head coach Kosei Inoue praised Abe. “He has physical strengths that can force even judoka from universities and clubs to draw back,” he said.
The young Abe, known for a sharp shoulder throw, got his start in judo as a kindergartener after seeing it on TV and thought the sport looked cool.
But admitted he “was just crying because I felt frightened” in his first experiences in judo. And as a boy, he shed bitter tears whenever he lost to his female counterparts.
Abe had set a long-term goal of competing at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but the victory at the Kodokan Cup changed his outlook to a more immediate goal.
“Now the Rio de Janeiro Games are no longer a distant goal for me,” he said.
Ebinuma did not take part in November’s Kodokan Cup.
“I’m looking forward to see how much Abe can compete against Ebinuma and international competitors,” Inoue said.
However, Abe seems to be calm. “I just want to do my style of judo,” he said.
Double duty for Asahina
Meanwhile, Asahina, who won back-to-back Kodokan titles this year, has two goals both of which are difficult to achieve: One is to take part at the Olympics, and the other is to become an orthopedist.
Asahina, a third-year student at Tokyo’s Shibuya High School, started judo when she was a second-grader at the Kodokan judo school near her home. Utilizing her height — she now stands 1.76 meters — she soon began receiving attention. She moved into the spotlight in 2012 when she finished third both at the All-Japan women’s championships and the Grand Slam Tokyo.
Because of the influence of her father, an anesthesist, and her dentist mother, Asahina herself hopes to become an orthopedist. As she is often absent from school to take part in tours, she brings her textbooks to training camps, while also asking her friends to give her photocopies of their notes.
Her age raises expectations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but Asahina aims to compete in the Rio de Janeiro Games.
“Everybody says I cannot [pursue two careers],” she said. “But I’ll do my best until I find it impossible.”