| Female wrestlers are now represented in 17 countries
Hakkyoi! At the signal, two crouching sumo wrestlers lunge towards each other in a frenzy of flailing hands and slapping flesh. Grunts fill the air as the opponents collide. Less than a minute later, it is all over. The loser, a 19-stone mountain of muscle and fat, lies flat on his back, felled by a hip throw. The winner, eight-and-a-half stone Chantal Freebury, bows low to her fallen rival.
This dojo, or sumo ring, is in Derby, and Freebury is not a typical sumo wrestler. Sumo has been a male-only martial art since it first began in Japan 1,300 years ago. No longer. Despite protests from purists, there is a slew of women-only international sumo contests and a female world champion. According to the International Sumo Federation, which oversees women’s sumo, female wrestlers are now represented in 17 countries. At the headquarters of the British Sumo Federation, Freebury is dwarfed by her sparring partner.
Like male wrestlers, she wears the traditional 7m-long mawashi loincloth. Hers, however, is tied over a demure black leotard.
“I started doing sumo because I wanted to get in shape in a fun and exciting way,” says Freebury, who trains with other female sumo enthusiasts in the area. “I have actually lost weight since I started learning sumo three years ago. It has really toned up my muscles.”
The Japanese art is also a great way to let off steam. “I can come to a session and take it all out on an opponent,” she says. “It makes me feel great. I forget everything when I come to the dojo.”
Sumo master Steve Pateman, who has coached Freebury for the past three years, says the sport is ideally suited to women. “It is not just about brute force,” he says. “Anyone can win through technique and guile.” Women are even at an advantage because of their body shape. “Women tend to have shorter legs than men,” he says.
“Stability is everything in sumo, and women benefit because their centre of balance tends to be naturally closer to the ground.” The risk of injury is minimal, too, as it is one of the more straightforward martial arts. The idea is to push your partner out of a 15feet round ring, or force him or her to touch the ground with any part of their body other than the soles of their feet. There are 48 legitimate techniques for doing this, but kicking, punching and hair-pulling are not allowed.
“If Chantal ever feels uncomfortable, she can step out of the circle and the bout is over,” says Pateman. “Kick-boxing and karate are much more violent.” He also points out that it is a great cardiovascular workout. “Each wrestle might last only seconds, but high levels of exertion are required. When I have a go, just a brief scuffle leaves me exhausted, aching and dripping with sweat.”
Freebury trains twice a week, and each hour-long session starts with a warm-up. The shiko, or leg-stamping exercise, important for developing balance and thigh strength, involves a crab-like movement when each bent leg is raised in turn and stamped back down on the floor.
Other traditional exercises include the matawari or “umo splits”; sitting with legs apart and trying to touch the floor with your chest, to improve flexibility. But collision training is the most arduous. This involves charging and pushing another wrestler across the ring until both parties are red-faced and sweating.
Physical preparation is important but psychological toughness is also key to winning sumo contests. According to Pateman, 90 per cent of a sumo bout has been won before it begins. He encourages Freebury to adopt a frightening demeanour, and giggling is forbidden. Ritualised eyeballing is as important as the wrestling. Freebury says she feels mentally stronger since taking up sumo.
In Japan, sumo wrestlers stick to a diet of a rich broth of vegetables, dumplings and meat. Freebury prefers steak and pasta salads, and only on training days. Freebury clearly loves her sport, but she is not convinced it will become popular among women. “A lot of girls would like it if they gave it a try but they are intimidated by the look of it,” she says.
The mawashi belt is also a sticking point. Seven feet of canvas can be uncomfortable, and she thinks it looks silly, too. “Sumo is a traditional sport and the mawashi is traditional dress, I suppose,” she says. “But fortunately, it is OK to practise sumo wearing a judo belt instead.”'