Sakura Kokumai’s unique journey to the Olympics nears its finish

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For Sakura Kokumai, karate’s addition to the Olympic program for Tokyo has been life-changing. A particularly memorable stretch occurred over one week in March 2020.

Kokumai, a 28-year-old who lives in Southern California, became the first American to qualify for Olympic karate on March 18 of last year.

Six days later, the Tokyo Games were moved to 2021. Turns out, Kokumai was the last American to qualify for Tokyo in any sport before the postponement announcement.

“It was really challenging … but I got creative!” Kokumai said as part of the NBC Olympics Reddit AMA series. Kokumai’s full AMA is here.

Kokumai said she restarted training “from zero,” inside a garage with weights, a karate mat and mirrors. She’s used to training alone.

In her discipline of kata, athletes complete a series of predetermined movements and are judged on speed, strength, focus, breathing, balance and rhythm. The other Olympic karate event, kumite, is the head-to-head fighting discipline.

The Tokyo Olympics are special to Kokumai for several reasons. It might be karate’s only appearance on the Olympic program. It will not be contested in Paris in 2024, and it hasn’t been determined if it will be on the 2028 Los Angeles program or Games beyond that.

Kokumai is a first-generation American whose parents are from Japan. Modern karate is rooted in Japan. She still has family in Japan.

It was announced in August 2016 that karate would be contested at the Tokyo Games. Kokumai quit her job, moved cities and changed her training schedule in a bid to qualify. She earned a spot after a two-year process with more than 20 competitions around the world.

“We were constantly traveling non stop for 2 years,” Kokumai said in the Reddit AMA, “always traveling out of a suitcase.”

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 before coming back to the States.

The end of her journey is in sight. This week marked 100 days until the Games. Kokumai anticipates sharing a life-changing experience with the world’s best athletes, bringing to mind the best advice she’s received.

“I remember a sensei in Japan once told me when I was young … ‘cherish every single people you meet,'” she said.

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Sakura Kokumai’s unique journey to the Olympics nears its finish originally appeared on NBCSports.com