Sakura Kokumai, a first-generation American whose parents are from Japan, became the first U.S. Olympic qualifier in the new Olympic sport of karate.
World Karate announced the first 40 global qualifiers on Wednesday, taking the four highest-ranked athletes per gender in the eight Olympic medal events after the final qualifying tournaments were canceled due to the coronavirus. One host-nation athlete from Japan also qualified per event.
Kokumai, a 27-year-old, eight-time national champion ranked fifth in the world in the kata discipline, was the lone American among those first qualifiers. It came at the end of a two-year qualifying process with more than 20 competitions.
“I’ve known for about two weeks, but I’ve just been waiting for that last confirmation,” Kokumai said, noting she found out via social media. “So that waiting part was super hard. But as soon as I got it … I think everything that I was holding on kind of released then. I was excited, happy, everything that I went through kind of just all the emotions came out all at once.”
The other karate discipline, kumite, is the head-to-head fighting discipline. In kata, athletes complete a series of predetermined movements and are judged on speed, strength, focus, breathing, balance and rhythm.
Kokumai, born in Hawaii, began taking karate lessons at age 7 at a local YMCA. She eventually moved to Japan to study (earning a master’s in international culture and communication), train and work.
“Karate in Japan is like what football is to here,” Kokumai said in November. “You can get scholarships, like sports scholarships, like big time from junior high, high school to college, and even after college you can find a job in a company and still do karate representing that company.”
Two or three years ago, Kokumai’s coach died and she moved back to the U.S. A family friend in Santa Clarita, Calif., offered a bedroom to her.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted training for many U.S. Olympic hopefuls, but karate can be practiced anywhere.
“So that’s something we’re all thankful for, especially for kata athletes, for our discipline,” Kokumai said from California, where she has always trained by herself. “It’s a good thing that karate doesn’t need much equipment. All we have to do is keep on training with the space we have. So in that sense, I’m not too worried at all. I actually shouldn’t be because the environment for me hasn’t really changed in terms of training. So just trying to just praying that it all goes away.”
NBC Senior Olympic Researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report.
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