10 to watch: U.S. karateka Sakura Kokumai took long, sometimes lonely road to Tokyo Olympics

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Looking back now, Sakura Kokumai says, it was a crazy idea.

It was late 2017, and Kokumai had just turned 25. She had recently earned a master's degree in international studies and started a job at a corporation in Tokyo, effectively settling into the rhythm of a normal life – working during the day, and practicing karate at night.

But as the weeks went on, Kokumai started to have a change of heart.

She decided to go for it.

Kokumai quit her job and moved to Los Angeles, taking up an American family's offer to let her live in a spare bedroom. She started working out in their garage, and taking a train down to San Diego once or twice a week for strength and conditioning work.

She had no sponsors, little financial stability and no clue whether her crazy idea would ever actually pay off.

"In my head, it was like, 'OK, I know what I want,' " Kokumai recalled to USA TODAY Sports. "I will figure everything out as it goes."

Now, as karate makes its Olympic debut in the country where it was born, Kokumai represents Team USA's best chance at a medal in the sport. The 28-year-old is a seven-time U.S. champion who is ranked No. 7 in the world in women's kata – a form-based discipline that is more performance than combat.

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Her journey to the Tokyo Olympics has been a long, often lonely slog – three-plus years of training and travel in which she was usually on her own.

She did not grow up with dreams of making it to the Olympics. And when that became a realistic goal, she did not have the financial or organizational support that so many other Olympic athletes enjoy.

"It did feel lonely at times," Kokumai said. "It was very challenging. And I hope that the younger generations of athletes (will) not experience what I had to experience as an athlete."

Shifting goals

The International Olympic Committee formally added karate to its Olympic program in Aug. 2016. The qualifying process for the Tokyo Games began at the start of 2018.

It was against this backdrop that Kokumai, after graduating from Waseda University in Tokyo and working at a Japanese company for nine months, decided to "change the environment."

"I loved representing my country," she said. "I loved the adrenaline that came with competition and the process of training and working towards a goal and accomplishing those goals.

"And when karate was announced as the Olympic sport, obviously the goals changed."

Kokumai had first tried the martial arts form when she was 7 years old, in a YMCA class in Honolulu, Hawaii. She did pretty much every sport at that age, she recalled, but karate stuck.

By 14, she was on the U.S. junior national team, competing around the U.S. and traveling internationally. And by 20, she was winning medals at the senior level.

Kokumai's discipline, kata, is an individual event that essentially tells the story of a fight, with an athlete kicking and punching in predetermined combinations that go back centuries. Each athlete's performance is then scored on speed, power and precision. (The other Olympic karate discipline, kumite, consists of sparring.)

In large part due to the nature of her event, Kokumai has spent most of her career training on her own, using mirrors and video to critique herself. But when she decided to chase an Olympic spot, she also sought out the help of a strength and conditioning coach, Nghia Pham, who helped refine her body while teaching her about sports psychology and nutrition.

"I remember she was taking the train down here, from L.A., to come train with me," said Pham, who owns and operates Optimum Training and Performance. "And I’m like, ‘who is this girl taking a two-hour train, taking like all day to come down and see me? Obviously this is something very important to her.' "

Pham said Kokumai's workout sessions would last several hours, featuring exercises that would build her explosiveness and test her reflexes.

Then, when that was over, she would often stay at the facility for a few more hours and practice her kata.

"Sometimes you see athletes, they do the work just because they see a prize in front of them – typically a monetary prize," Pham said. "For her, what I saw from the very beginning, was the passion for the art, for karate."

Home away from home

Gary and Rumiko Stevens talk about it now as if it was hardly even a question.

Of course they let Kokumai move into their daughter Alisa's old bedroom, after she left for college. Of course they agreed to house and feed the karateka for more than three years, including the bulk of the COVID-19 pandemic. Why wouldn't they?

"We knew how hard it was for her," Gary Stevens said. "When you’re competing at that level, and the decision was made to put karate into the Olympics and how much more pressure that put on somebody – she needed a place where she could focus and train."

The Stevenses said they had met Kokumai at various competitions, within the insular world of U.S. karate. Their youngest son, Kevin, was an accomplished youth competitor in kata, while Kokumai was dominant in the same discipline on the senior level.

Rumiko Stevens recalled eating dinner with Kokumai and her mother one night and hitting it off – in part, she thinks, because of their shared Japanese-American identity. Rumiko Stevens is originally from Tokyo. Kokumai split much of her childhood between Hawaii and Japan.

"She just, I guess, felt comfortable," Rumiko Stevens said.

Team USA karateka Sakura Kokumai has taken a long, tough road to the Olympics.
Team USA karateka Sakura Kokumai has taken a long, tough road to the Olympics.

Kokumai joked that the Stevenses probably came to regret inviting her to move in. "They were probably like, 'what did we get ourselves into?' " she said with a laugh.

But she also grew emotional when talking about the way in which they welcomed her into their family, giving her a U.S.-based support system to lean on between competitions and training – lonely periods in which she'd live out of suitcases.

"They're just kind and generous people that wanted to help," Kokumai said. "And without them I wouldn't be here, really."

Gary and Rumiko Stevens said they've been in awe of Kokumai's work ethic, and they consider her part of the family. They have inside jokes, including about Kokumai's love of bacon. And Gary said she's part of all of the regular forms of communication that they have with their children, from email distribution lists to family Zoom calls.

"We think the world of her," Gary said.

Full circle

Even with all of the COVID-19 countermeasures that are in place, Kokumai believes she'll feel right at home at the Tokyo Olympics.

Japan is where she spent most of high school and the entirety of college. Many of her classmates still live in Tokyo. Her parents live in Okayama. And Kokumai says she knows every detail about the Nippon Budokan, where the karate events at the Olympics will be held.

"It's a full circle," she said.

Although Kokumai has spent a significant portion of her life in Japan, she said there was never any doubt that she would represent the U.S. on the international stage.

She grew up idolizing American karatekas. And she never questioned her American identity. Her presence on the U.S. national team has confused some people in Japan, she said, but it's never been an issue for her. If anything, she said it illustrates the beauty of American culture – that your identity doesn't have to be one-dimensional, or straightforward.

"I think with their own athletes – like Osaka Naomi – being so successful, it's opening their eyes to understand that you don't have to look a certain way to represent a certain country," Kokumai said. "Everyone has a different background. Everyone has their own story. You’re just who you are."

Karate has been added to the Olympic program only for the 2020 Games. It will not be contested at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, and its status for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles is unclear.

This means that, in all likelihood, the Tokyo Olympics will be Kokumai's last, as well as her first. But she hopes her performance at the Games – and her long, lonely journey to get there – might open some eyes, leading to increased awareness, more training resources for karate athletes or both.

"I hope that people see us as athletes," Kokumai said. "There is so much athleticism that's involved in the sport. We train hard every day, like any other athletes, and we make the same sacrifices. So I hope that people see that."

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sakura Kokumai took long, sometimes lonely road to Tokyo Olympics