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Female Sumo Wrestlers Step Up to the Ring

Posted: May 02, 2012

As the only girl in a set of triplets, Natasha Ikejiri grew up fighting with her brothers for everything from the television remote to the last serving of dessert — literally and physically.

Now, as a national champion sumo wrestler, Natasha applies the lessons she learned from living room wrestling matches to sumo rings around the world.

“Bigger girls, I’ll hit them straight on and honestly, it looks like a head-butt,” said the 21-year-old with a laugh from her home in Los Angeles. “I’m trying to push my head into their diaphragm so they can’t breathe. They start freaking out so they stand up and that’s when I have full control.”

A natural athlete, Natasha’s main sport growing up was basketball. Though only five foot four, she competed in her local Japanese American basketball league and was known to muscle her opponents to the hoop. When she started college at California State University, Northridge, she also joined the ROTC, which put her on a strict exercise regiment. But the thought of one day being able to utilize her athletic abilities in a sumo ring never, ever crossed her mind, she says.

That changed when a friend saw her wrestling with one of her brothers, George, and invited both of them to a sumo practice. Although Natasha, who is half Japanese and half Portuguese, had taken Japanese language courses for over a decade, sumo wrestling was one aspect of her cultural heritage that she knew almost nothing about.

Curious, Natasha and George attended the practice. After learning the rules in “about five minutes,” both won their first matches right off the bat, she recounts.

“From there they would call us and be like, ‘Hey do you guys want to do this tournament? We’ll feed you and it’ll be cool!” said Natasha.

She continued to win more and more tournaments and eventually she went to nationals and won. In 2010 she took part in the SportAccord World Combat Games in Beijing.

In China, Natasha and over 1,000 other athletes representing the best in combat sports from all five continents competed in the same stadiums used during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. In Natasha’s stadium, she remembers being told that there were up to 10,000 people watching in the stands.

“When I went out there I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ There were just so many people, like a sea of people. You couldn’t even make out their faces,” she said. “There were flashes like crazy and I was just standing there thinking, ‘This is insane.’”

She was disqualified during her first match for breaking her opponent’s elbow, but Natasha still enjoyed putting on a show for the crowd during the rest of her matches, where she was up against much bigger and more experienced wrestlers than herself.

Although the SportAccord competition allowed sumo wrestlers to compete on an international level, the chances of sumo becoming an Olympic sport anytime soon are very slim, says Andrew Freund, the director of USA Sumo.

“The next Olympic games, zero percent. The one after that, zero percent … I would say the first viable possibility would be 2020 but even that is a long shot,” he said.

To become an Olympic sport, sumo would have to undergo a lengthy and difficult admission process; among other criteria, it must be “widely practiced around the world.”

Furthermore, it must follow the Olympic Charter, which states that all sports seeking inclusion to the games must include women’s events. With that criterion in mind, the international sumo community has been encouraging female participation in sumo, starting with the first major women’s-only tournament held in 1997.

Sumo, the national sport of Japan, originated as a form of entertainment for the Shinto gods. The rules are simple: during a match, wrestlers, or rikishi, try to push each other out of a ring, called a dohyo, which measures approximately 15 feet in diameter. Rikishi can also win by forcing their opponent to touch the dohyo with any body part other than their bare feet. Matches are quick, ranging in time from mere seconds to a few minutes.

“It’s really explosive. You come off the line [and] it’s like hit, hit, hit; you don’t even know what happens and you’re on the floor,” said Natasha.

After the first international sumo tournament was held in Japan in 1980, interest in the sport spread to other countries and an international amateur sumo circuit was created.

However, amateur sumo is nothing like pro sumo in Japan, where those who participate consider it to be a lifestyle, not just a sport, says Freund. From the age of 14 or 15, boys enter sumo schools and are subjected to a “military-like” regimen of training.

“It’s not like there’s an on season or an off season. They have training pretty much the entire year, every week [and] every month,” he said.

Even with the continuously growing interest in sumo in the United States, Freund says that the sport has caught on much quicker in other countries, especially in places like Russia and Mongolia, with both men and women. Unlike the United States many countries also have government-funded sports associations which provide support for athletes, including sumo wrestlers.

Idaho native Natalie Burns, who also participated in the Sportacore Combat Games in Beijing with Natasha, thinks that American women might be turned off to sumo by the impression that sumo wrestlers have to be big.

“In the U.S. I think women are just more self conscious about themselves,” she said.

Plus, “it takes a tough woman. And I’m a lady too but I just thought it would be fun, you know,” said Burns. “It can take you anywhere, really.”

Tiffany Tran, a 27-year-old graduate student, just recently started going to sumo practices at Freund’s gym after watching an exhibition match featuring Yama, the heaviest Japanese pro sumo wrestler (and, according to his website, the “largest Japanese human ever”).

“I’m not even joking, but the next day after my first practice, I was sore from head to toe. I couldn’t even move when I woke up,” she said from her home in Chatsworth, Calif.

But she plans on continuing to do sumo in the future, as she’s found it to be a great way to “expel all [her] stress and aggression.”

Natasha is enthusiastic about female newcomers to sumo like Tran.

“We have just as much potential to make it [as] big here as Europe did,” she said.

“It just caught on over there and we’re still over here going, ‘you don’t have to be fat, it’s okay,’” she added.

Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Sumo Open

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