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Uta Abe: The poster girl of Tokyo 2020 that’s still at high school

She’s her sport’s youngest ever winner and has never been defeated outside of her native Japan.

But judo phenomenon Uta Abe is just getting started.

Only gold will do for the 17-year-old, with both the 2018 World Championships and Tokyo 2020 Olympic games on the horizon.

“I started judo at age five and from the very first day I fell in love with the sport,” Abe tells CNN.

“Something I always keep in mind is never to back down, but to always move forward and keep attacking.”

Already a bona fide star in her home country, she could hardly have bigger footsteps to follow.

Abe’s uncle, Tadahiro Nomura, is the only judoka in history to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals.

Her 20-year-old brother, Hifumi, is the reigning half-lightweight (-66kg) world champion and remains undefeated since 2015.

“From a very young age, I remember my brother practicing,” says Abe, who grew up in Hyogo Prefecture, some 300 kilometers from Tokyo. “He has always been a role model for me and I look up to him very highly.

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Record breaker

Deferential and self-effacing off the mat, she is a force to be reckoned with on it.

The Dusseldorf Grand Prix in February 2017 was her first senior international outing and, while lesser talents might have been intimidated, Abe proved her credentials immediately, beating current world champion Ai Shishime and Amandine Buchard of France on her way to the top of the podium at the age of 16.

That was just a taste of things to come.

Both Uta and Hifumi triumphed at the prestigious Tokyo Grand Slam in December 2017, sealing gold on home soil in their respective categories barely 15 minutes apart.

It was the latter’s 28th consecutive victory but his admiration for his younger sister was clear.

“I saw my sister win her final before I fought,” said Hifumi, who defeated compatriot Joshiro Maruyama by ippon in the men’s half-lightweight final. “Her victory meant I was even more motivated to win gold.”

“If she had won and I hadn’t, then even though I’m the older brother, it would have been me looking up to her.”

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It says it all that the Abe siblings alone would have been second in the overall medal table.

But, when asked if she’s ever been able to teach her big brother a thing or two, Uta laughs and shakes her head.

“Not yet,” is the answer.

They played video games and stole ice cream out of the freezer just like normal siblings in their childhood home, but did they ever fall out growing up?

“A long time was spent on the mat,” she smirks diplomatically, already a deft hand with the media before she’s finished high school.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Uta favors physical education over other subjects like maths and English.

What she wants most is to win as many judo tournaments as possible to make her “very supportive” parents proud.

The teenager, world junior champion in Zagreb last year, went some way to doing that at this February’s Paris Grand Slam — a spectacle unmatched on the judo calendar attended by as many as 15,000 fans.

There, Abe dispatched of both her first two opponents by ippon in under 10 seconds, leaving the crowd in stunned silence.

The home favorite, Buchard, was eventually waiting for her in the final, but once again the young prodigy proved too strong.

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No wonder she has lofty expectations for the next few years.

“My short term goal is to win the World Championships later this year and my mid-term objective is to win an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo,” says Abe.

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What about her long-term ambitions?

“I can’t be so sure right now but I definitely want to continue until 2024 and keep practicing judo.”

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