The Estonian women's epee team has taken Gold at the Tokyo Olympics, after coming from behind to defeat South Korea in emotional style in the final Tuesday. The result is the first Gold for Estonia at the summer games since 2008.
The foursome of Katrina Lehis, Julia Beljajeva, Erika Kirpu and Irina Embrich defeated their opponents 36:32 to take Gold, Estonia's first of the tournament and only its second medal of the competition so far, adding to Katrina Lehis' individual Bronze she won Saturday in the same discipline.
The Estonian team, Lehis, Beljajeva and Kirpu, plus Embrich, who is reserve member, had beaten Poland in the quarter-finals and then Italy in the semi-finals, in action which all took place on Tuesday.
The semi-final started 7.40 a.m. Estonian time, while the final began at 1.30 p.m. local time (7.30 p.m. in Japan).
Each of the three participants played each of their opposing team's fencers, making nine matches in total.
Estonia also used their reserve fencer, Irina Embrich, in the seventh match, replacing Erika Kirpu.
While Estonia tied things put in the second match (Lehis v. Kang), South Korea pulled ahead and maintained a two-to-three-point lead for the next four matches, until the gap gradually narrowed to 24 points each with two encounters to go. The penultimate match-up also brought a draw, 2:2, between Julia Beljajeva and Sera Song, leaving Saturday's medalist Katrina Lehis to play-off for the medal against Injeong Choi. That produced the epic score-line of 10:6 in favor of Lehis and the Estonians, to hand them Gold with an overall score of 36:32.
The match results from the final went as follows:
Julia Beljajeva (EST) v. Injeong Choi (KOR) 4:2
Katrina Lehis (EST) v. Young Mi Kang (KOR) 3:5
Erika Kirpu (EST) v. Sera Song (KOR) 4:6
Beljajeva v. Kang 2:2
Kirpu v. Choi 5:4
Lehis v. Song 3:3
Irina Embrich (EST) v. Kang 3:2
Beljajeva v. Song 2:2
Lehis v. Choi 10:6
TOTAL: Estonia 36, South Korea 32
Talking to ERR Sport's Anu Säärits after the win in Tokyo, Katrina Lehis said it was: "Still hard to comprehend anything right now. It is still inconceivable that the competition is over, and we're the victors. We don't have to fence anymore, and there won't be more matches. This will all take time to sink in."
Katrina Lehis: Hard to conceive there's no more fencing to be done
Key in the victory was mutual support for each other, Lehis said.
"I don't think I remember any team chemistry as good as what we had today. We cheered for, encouraged and motivated each other, and everything was in place. We believed in ourselves, and that was fantastic," she went on.
"We were able to overcome our nerves and the tension, and just fence. It was key today that everyone was able to fence. We fought in all the matches and tried to take the initiative. Sometimes it turned out better that way, sometimes not, but that was the basis," Lehis added.
Julia Beljajeva meanwhile said that the nerves had: "Held out well. I felt good at these games, and after going out in the individual tournament, I didn't give up and said to myself that I wasn't going to leave without a medal."
Erika Kirpu called Tuesday: "The best day of my life. I haven't got to grips with it. I was in total shock on the podium. I couldn't comprehend at all what was going on."
"The whole match was tense, but before the decisive round, I knew that Katrina Lehis could do it. I said 'we're with you, and you're strong and you can do it'."
Super-sub Irina Embrich said that things couldn't have got any better.
"I came to the contest to see who was against whom, and in which place. You never know how a match will go, and with one round the situation can be reversed," she said.
"Fortunately, I was able to pull myself together and put in some good fencing, and the outcome was a draw. The girls continued at the same pace, and we got the gold," Embrich went on.
Team coach: This Gold is for the whole country
Team coach Kaido Kaaberma said that the victory was for the Estonian people as a whole.
Speaking to Anu Säärits in Tokyo, Kaaberma said that: "Emotions are through the rood. This can be said to be for the entire Estonian nation, it is the gold for the Estonian people as a whole."
Speaking to ERR Sport's Anu Säärits in Tokyo, Kaaberma said that: "Emotions are through the rood. This can be said to be for the entire Estonian nation, it is the gold for the Estonian people as a whole."
"Thanks to their support and faith, the girls finally did it. This is not a real surprise; we have worked for it and came here with thoughts of medals," he went on, noting that it made up for the last Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, where the team came away empty-handed.
"The girls now have more experience, and Katrina is still here. I have no other words - the Olympic gold speaks for itself," he said.
Kaaberma admitted to more than a little nervousness going into the final match, between Lehis, who had already picked up a medal in Tokyo, and Choi.
"I believed that [Katrina] could do it, but I didn't have a heart rate monitor to tell what that was reading. Things were tense and it was really hot".
He also shed light on the decision to bring in substitute fencer Irina Embrich late on in proceedings, when Estonia was still behind.
"If you haven't been competing up until now and you go straight into fencing in the finals, this is very tough. However, I believed in her, because she has so much experience. This is not her first final, she did very well," Kaabermaa said, noting that it was Embrich who tied things up in the scores after Estonia had been trailing the South Koreans since the second pairing, while Julia Beljajeva was able to hold the lead, and set things up for Katrina Lehis' Gold medal-clinching finale.
President: Hard-fought-for result
Head of State President Kersti Kaljulaid was one of the first to congratulate the team.
"Victory! An awesome job well done, Julia Beljajeva, Katrina Lehis, Erika Kirpu, Irina Embrich and Kaido Kaaberma."
"I made a phone call to the winners after the match to thank them for such a strong result, and of course for an exciting final," the president wrote on her social media account.
"This is really a superb, very long-striven for result," she went on.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) also praised the victors, noting on her social media page that it had been: "13 years since the last Estonian athlete's Olympic victory, and 29 years since the last Estonian women's victory at the summer olympics."
"And now, four awesome Estonian women are Olympic winners. We were able to wait. From watching the intense gold medal struggle, your nerves were taut and tears of emotions were in your eyes. Thankyou Katrina Lehis, Thankyou Julia Beljajeva, Thankyou Irina Embrich, Thankyou Erika Kirpu, and congratulations to you," the prime minister added.
Riigikogu speaker Jüri Ratas (Center) struck a similar tone on his own social media account: "You are fantastic, our, Erika, Irina, Julia, Katrina and Estonia. Congratulations and continued success to both you and your team, coaches, families and supporters. Long live Estonia."
And in English below.
fencing team is the bestYou are fantastic, Erika Kirpu, Irina Embrich, Julia Beljajeva and Katrina Lehis Thank you for one more #Olympic medal for #Estonia from #Tokyo2020#TeamESTONIA #OlympicGames #Fencing #Epee pic.twitter.com/2Mdm3nEvO3— Jüri Ratas (@ratasjuri) July 27, 2021
The four arrive back home in Tallinn on Wednesday at 5.30 p.m. Estonian time.
Estonia's four-woman epee team was one of the subjects of a recent rendering of the country's entrants in Tokyo, anime style. In addition to Lehis, Beljajeva and Kirpu, Irina Embrich makes up the reserve spot.
The foursome have been a major contender in European and World level in recent years; Lehis won the individual epee at the World Championships in Barcelona in early 2020.
Estonia has won a total of 14 Gold medals at the Summer Olympics, three of these since the restoration of independence in 1991. While the Estonian blue-black-white flag was flown at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, the following games, in Barcelona in 1992, were the first the country competed in after full independence.
The last Gold was clinched by discus thrower Gerd Kanter at the Beijing games in 2008.
Overall, Estonia has won 42 medals of all three kinds, 13 of these in the modern era, prior to the current Olympics in Tokyo.
The medals tally in the Tokyo games so far is as noted two, with Katrina Lehis getting epee Bronze in her own right and Gold in the team event.
The epee is the largest and heaviest of the three weapons used in sport fencing; its rules of engagement differ somewhat from those of the more familiar foil, as there are no rules regarding priority and right of way, and the entire body is a valid target area.
This article was updated to include comment from Katrina Lehis, Julia Beljajeva, Erika Kirpu and Irina Embrich, and from team coach Kaido Kaaberma and social media reaction from the president, the prime minister and the Riigikogu speaker.
Editor: Andrew Whyte