Unlike other Olympic hopefuls, the novel coronavirus pandemic may yet prove to be a blessing in disguise for Filipino-Japanese judoka and four-time Southeast Asian Games gold medalist Kiyomi Watanabe.
“We didn’t want to announce it then but Kiyomi actually dislocated her left arm at the Dusseldorf Grand Slam in Germany last February,” judo chief Dave Carter said on Friday, of the fate Watanabe suffered at an Olympic-ranking meet in her bid to qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Games.
“If you will look at the video of her performance, you would take pity on her because of the dislocated elbow. It didn’t look good,” he said. “Good thing it was not a fracture. Having an injury like this is not the end of the line for a judoka.”
Since then, Carter said he marveled at Watanabe’s swift recovery, who ruled the women’s -63-kilogram division for the fourth straight time in the last SEA Games held in December.
“In the shortest span of time, Kiyomi was able to heal fast. We were sent a recent video of her rehabilitation under the supervision of her coach about two or three weeks ago,” he disclosed. “She is now doing push-ups and weights. Watanabe is good as new.
“Nakatulong talaga ’yong (worldwide) lockdown kay Kiyomi, because everybody stopped. (The worldwide lockdown helped Kiyomi because everybody stopped.)”
Watanabe led a trio of Filipino judokas who bagged golds in the last SEA Games, with fellow Fil-Japanese Shugen Nakano and Mariya Takashi topping the men’s 66-kg and women’s 70-kg divisions, respectively. The hometown bets likewise copped one silver and nine bronzes in the meet.
Carter disclosed that all three national athletes have not stopped training in Japan even during the ongoing global virus crisis, “although they are not allowed to train yet in their respective dojos (gyms),” according to the PKF head.
“The Nakano brothers, Shugen and Kisei, are being trained by their elder brother and 2016 Rio Olympics veteran Kodo, while Kiyomi is also training with her coach. We’ve seen them in videos jogging in the streets while keeping their proper social distance,” Carter added.
On the other hand, Carter said “some of our local athletes are undergoing online training with our coaches here while some of them, like veteran John Baylon, are enlisted personnel and serving during the present situation.”
Judo is aiming to send its third straight representative to the quadrennial global sports showcase since the 2012 London Olympiad when Tomohohiko Hoshina competed in the men’s +100-kg category, losing to South Korea’s Kim Sung-min in the opening round.
Nakano suffered the same fate in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in Brazil four years ago in a first-round setback to Italy’s Matteo Marconcini in the men’s -81 kg.
Carter, however, was cautiously optimistic that Watanabe, 24, a 2018 Indonesia Asian Games gold medalist, would not only qualify for Tokyo next year but, if everything falls into place, could also land the country’s first Olympic judo medal.
“Given Kiyomi’s skill and dedication, we expect her to go far. Iba siya (she’s different) from our previous judokas in the Olympics,” Carter said of Watanabe, whose mom, Irene Sarausad, hails from Cebu.
Watanabe could make some noise in Tokyo
Based on the judo Olympic process, the top 18 after the ranking tournaments that finished by May 2021 will qualify outright in each of the 14 weight divisions — seven for men and seven for women. Japan is entitled to one separate slot in each class as the host nation.
However, a country is limited to one qualifier each under system while the International Judo Federation, the sport’s world governing body, has also set aside continental quotas in filling up the remaining berths.
When the virus crisis gripped the world, stopping all sports activity for months, Watanabe was ranked No. 36 in the Olympic rankings of the IJF.
“But with some countries having multiple entries in the top 18 rankings, Kiyomi is now around No. 23,” said Carter, the Judo Union of Asia sports director
The soft-spoken and shy Watanabe, whom Carter said can speak a smattering of Cebuano, currently falls under the Asian continental quota, based on the latest IJF post.
What is intriguing, Carter said, is that Watanabe’s potential Olympic medal drive could find herself in a rematch with Japan’s Nami Nabekura, who narrowly beat her for the gold in the 2018 Asiad in Jakarta two years ago. Nabekura is presently No. 4 in the IJF Olympic ratings.
“This is why we are optimistic that an in-form Kiyomi could bring us a medal in Tokyo,” Carter stressed. “She’s already proven to be a tough fighter and eager to prove herself in the Olympics.”
While most Olympic aspirants see 2020 as a total write-off due to the COVID-19 contagion, the standstill has given Watanabe a much-needed break to recover and fulfill her Olympic dreams.
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