History was made in Tokyo this week when the United States women’s sumo team claimed its first-ever Sumo World Championships medals.
Including the World Games, which have thrice acted as de facto world championships, 18 tournaments took place between 2001 and 2022 without an American woman once setting foot on a podium.
All that changed on Sunday evening when Kellyann Ball earned bronze by downing Kai Pahkel of Estonia in the heavyweight division repechage final.
Speaking to Inside Sumo afterward, the 30-year-old said, “I’m in disbelief, but I’m really excited and proud to be here, and glad to do as well as I did today. It’s really exciting to make history.
"Honestly, I was just hoping for a medal, I like to be realistic. I’m not one of those types that are like ‘I am going to win everything.' So, I was just trying to be very realistic and I was hoping to win a medal, and I did that today so that’s amazing.”
Asked how it felt stepping into the ring with a chance to be the first woman from the United States to reach a podium, Ball admitted she was “A little nervous, (because) one of the guys had told me I was going against Thailand, so having a different opponent than what I thought threw me off a little bit, but I just went in, and I tried to do my sumo, and I was able to get a grip and put pressure on her and just drive her out.”
That aggressive attacking style of sumo may have been forged in America, but it has Japanese influences.
“I’ve trained with (former maegashira) Yamamotoyama for a long time, and I also trained with Takeshi (Amitani, a Japanese amateur standout) for a while, so I’ve learned a lot from them," Ball said. "And they’ve kind of geared me toward a certain style of sumo that fits my body type and fits what I naturally do, and that’s just push and drive.”
Ball later added to her haul with with a second medal in the team tournament.
Wins over Mongolia and Thailand earned the U.S. a semifinal berth. After falling there to eventual champion Ukraine, the Americans quickly rebounded with a bronze-medal playoff victory against Taiwan.
Ball’s teammate Madison Guinn was elated with their performance, saying “I feel awesome. We made history. It’s always been a tough run for (the U.S.), we haven’t any men’s or women’s medal in a minute. Now, today, with Kellyann getting the first women’s medal ever, and our team getting the first women’s team medal ever, I feel like my worries were for nothing. We showed that we do belong here.”
Making the historic achievement even more incredible was the fact that Guinn was taking part in just her third tournament, and isn’t even a member of a sumo club.
“I train at WAR training center in Houston Texas — It’s an MMA gym, we don’t have any sumo, I just train MMA and hope it transfers," Guinn said.
Succeeding despite such obstacles has the sumo beginner — and now world medalist — hooked on her new sport, and (rightly) brimming with confidence.
“I feel like today — I lost two of my matches in my individuals, but I felt like I was on the same level as those girls. I just made some minor mistakes," Guinn said. "So, I’m gonna go back and fix those mistakes, and I’m gonna come back next year for Poland and I feel like I’m gonna win a world championship.”
Amazingly, Guinn’s December 2022 start in sumo doesn’t even make her the most recent convert to the sport on the U.S. team.
Just six months ago, 20-year-old Etan Perez happened across a Dallas Sumo Club demo at an Asian food festival.
“I showed up in all of my metal and all my chains, and my ripped skinny jeans and I was like ‘Can I try it out?’ They put me in a mawashi and explained the rules to me," Perez said on Sunday. "I got my ass whooped, but I thought it was fun, so I was like ‘You know what? Let me join this.’ So now we’re here."
Going from discovering the sport at a food festival in April to taking on seasoned international veterans in October was an intimidating and rapid jump in level, with Perez admitting she was "Terrified. I was scared out of my wits when I found out I qualified to come over here.
"Then I saw the people, and I was like, ‘Oh no, they are so much bigger than me,’ but my teammates kept encouraging and so I did the best I could. I was scared throughout the whole thing, but being upset at losing prior helps out with winning, 'cause nobody like to lose.”
Reaching the podium in her first-ever World Championships also means the journey isn’t over for Perez.
“Well, we medaled, and I said if we didn’t I would quit, so I’m stuck in sumo," she said. "I’m very hard on myself. Either I’m good at it or not, so I guess I’m here for the next year. I’m happy that we made history. I’m happy I get to be in the books as part of the team.
"Do I wish we would have gotten a higher rank? Yes, but, we’re here, and we made it so, maybe next year, maybe the year after, we’ll see how it goes.”
culled from Japan Times