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When she began taking karate classes as a sports-loving seven-year-old in Hawaii, Sakura Kokumai never imagined becoming an Olympic athlete. In fact, karate was not even an Olympic sport. She just did it for kicks.
“I remember running around, punching, kicking. At that age, you just want to have fun,” she says. But her skills soon became clear, and she transferred from the YMCA to a more serious karate school, or dojo. Over the years, she trained in both the United States and Japan, learning about the discipline and art of the sport from both worlds. Now, at 28, she’s making history, representing the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics—where karate will make its debut as an Olympic sport.
To get there, she went on an all-consuming odyssey, seeking to earn one of the few spots available for karate athletes at the Games. That meant crisscrossing the globe every month—Dubai, Turkey, Morocco—to compete at tournaments, scrambling to score enough points to qualify. All this, while coaching herself and living on a shoestring budget, as karate is, as she notes,“not a big money sport."
She achieved her hard-won goal in March of last year, becoming the first U.S. karate athlete to qualify for the Olympics. But then came the pandemic, delaying the Games by a year, and leaving her feeling isolated and lost. Suddenly she found herself training alone in her garage, at a time when she was supposed to be entering the final stretch of her Olympic quest. “I was really mentally ready to give it my all on that last sprint,” she says. “I went from traveling out of my suitcase to being stuck at home … not being able to go out, not being able to compete.”
She needed to find a path forward. She would turn to her personal history—the lessons learned on both sides of the Pacific—to do so.
Born in Honolulu, Kokumai split her time as a child between Hawaii and the Okayama prefecture of Japan, her parents’ homeland. “My parents wanted me to experience two cultures,” she says. “My mom wanted to be sure I spoke the language and understood the culture.” And so, she spent part of the school year in each place, and learned to play the koto, a traditional Japanese 13-string instrument that’s “taller than I am,” she says with a laugh. Karate offered another opportunity: “Traveling back and forth between Hawaii and Japan, I felt like karate was that common thing that connected me to these two places.”
While she enjoyed her double life, there were hurdles. “It was challenging to try to fit and adapt into two different places,” she says. “The structures are different, the teachers are different, how you express yourself is different, and obviously the language is different too. As a young Japanese American, you try to find your identity, where you belong. Karate was always there.”
She recalls her early days in the sport, when she first entered the dojo in Hawaii—a new world. “You learn all these rules. You have to bow. There’s a cleaning day every week. It definitely was not about just having fun,” she says. “We were taught to make that mental switch: Once you walk into the dojo, that’s where you leave everything behind and focus on training. When you walk out, then you can smile and do whatever you want.” At the same time, she says, “I really enjoyed karate. It wasn’t about me wanting to become a champion. I looked up to the instructors in the dojo; every move they did always amazed me. Whatever they did, I wanted to do. It really was about me just wanting to be like the people there.”
She immersed herself in the sport, eventually finding herself “in this bubble where karate became everything,” she says. “My parents said, Hey karate is good, but you’ve got to go to school. So my parents made sure that I did not go on this path in Japan where I only did karate. In Japan, karate is like what basketball or football is here,” she explains, noting that talented young athletes can get scholarships to special junior high schools, high schools, and colleges devoted heavily to karate training. She was fine with continuing on her more “flexible” path, she says, in both the U.S. and Japan.
It worked. When Kokumai was 14, she won gold at the 2007 U.S. junior nationals in two disciplines—kata, a series of precise movements performed solo; and kumite, sparring with an opponent. At the time, she didn’t realize the full significance of those wins until her friends explained that she had made the U.S. junior national team. She laughs as she recalls, “My friends and everyone were congratulating me. Growing up in a Japanese household, you don’t get that many compliments—I’ll just get, ‘Oh good job,’ and that’s it. Everyone was hyping me up. I was like, ‘Thank you, but why is everyone so excited?’ They were like, ’You made the team!’”
She has been competing for the U.S. ever since.
At 16, she chose to focus solely on kata. Although she enjoyed kumite—“I loved to fight,” she notes—she felt kata was ultimately a better fit. “Kata is more artistic, a way to express myself. I loved devoting my time to perfecting one movement. It made me feel more me.” She went on to score a slew of junior titles, followed by seven national championship titles and six Pan American championship titles as an adult.
Along the way, she continued to balance school and sports, going to college at Doshisha University in Kyoto, where she studied linguistics and education and competed on the karate team. Her first year on the team was an adjustment: “It’s a prestigious thing, belonging in a sports club at a university in Japan,” she says. “Looking back, it was tough because the cultures are different and people are different. As a freshman, you have to do certain things: You have to carry stuff for the older students, bring water for them, throw out trash for them.” It took some getting used to. “As a Japanese American, when I’m told to carry stuff, I look at the person who’s two times bigger and taller than me and I think, ‘Why would I carry your stuff?’ But it’s a cultural thing where you have respect for people who are older than you; you have to respect the culture. I was fortunate to be surrounded by open-minded people at the university. The friends I made there are the people who made me who I am today as a karate athlete.”
She also had to become a master of time management. “For four years I was part of the team there, which means you don’t have time to go anywhere else; you go to school, you take class, you sprint to the dojo, you train, you sprint back to class. Everything I did was based off of two things: study and karate,” she says. “If there’s a summer break, you don’t have it because you go to training camp with the team.” When she did have some rare time to herself, she trained kids at a local dojo. “The instructor would give me a little bit of money and dinner,” she says. “As a student, it really helped because even just one dollar is a lot!” Later she continued her education, getting her master’s degree in international cultural studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.
In the fall of 2016, she had just finished graduate school and was starting a new job in Japan when she heard the life-changing news: Karate would be included in the Olympics for the first time ever. She knew she needed to get there.
There had been talk of including karate in the Games over the years, to no avail. So when Kokumai heard that it was actually happening, “I couldn’t believe it at first,” she says. “I was asking around, ‘Is kata in it too? Are they trying to get only kumite? Will the two disciplines be represented?’” When she learned kata would indeed have its day, she redirected her life.
First she had to learn what it took to qualify. Since karate was a new sport for the Olympics, a new system had to be put in place. She learned that for kata, there would be spots for only 10 women and 10 men in the world. For kumite, there would be spots for 10 women and 10 men in each of three weight categories.
Further, Kokumai says, she learned that the first five spots in each category would go to athletes who ranked among the top five in the world. The remaining five spots in each category would be determined by a one-shot tournament. She set her sights on becoming one of the top five female kata athletes. “Immediately my focus went on that—where’s my ranking, where am I at, which tournament do I need to go to, basically, how do I get to that top five,” she says. She remembers being ranked around number 12 at the time.
The World Karate Federation set a timeline for athletes seeking to qualify, scheduling a series of international tournaments. Kokumai needed to get to those tournaments and secure enough points to achieve her goal. She had two years, starting in 2018, to get to the top five. In the meantime, she says, “I needed to train, I needed to prepare.”
And so, she left her job, packed her grip and moved to California, which would serve as her home base for her training and travels. There, she lived with a Japanese American host family she had befriended at a national tournament. “They were like, ‘We have one bedroom open.’ I packed everything and just flew to their house.” She laughs as she recalls, “I think at the beginning they were like, ‘What did we get ourselves into?’ They didn’t tell me that, but I’m pretty sure. Now they’re my second family.”
The next two years became a whirl of airports, time zones, jet lag. “In 2018, every two weeks I was in a different country,” she says. “In 2019, almost every month I was in a different country.” The World Karate Federation helped with travel expenses, “so that helped me kind of live a normal-ish life,” she says. “I was very fortunate to have a higher ranking where I was qualified to receive the support.” Amid all the globetrotting, she also appreciated returning home to her host family and having a home-cooked meal. “I can say this 100%: Without their support, I don’t think I would be here. They’ve seen me through the highs and lows.”
Indeed, 2018 was especially challenging. “I was losing the first and second round every time,” she says. “It was definitely not my year: I go to Istanbul, I lose first round; I go to Morocco, I lose first round; I go to Dubai, I lose first round.” But she kept plugging away, coaching herself in her garage and reminding herself that she had time to turn it around. “I knew that if I did well in 2019, I could still go to the top. I said, ‘Sakura, 2019 is the year you have to give it your all.’”
Her perseverance paid off.
By March of 2020, she knew she had racked up enough points to make the top five female kata athletes in the world. She just needed to get the official call from the World Karate Federation. When it finally came, “I think I just burst out crying,” she says. She was just a few months away from her dream, representing the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics.
And then, the coronavirus shut the world down.
When the Olympics got postponed, Kokumai felt flattened. The adrenaline rush from traveling the world and reaching the top faded as an uncertain year stretched ahead. “Athletes live out of having a structure in our life,” she says. But she had none. Her life for the past two years had been geared toward the Games, which were suddenly more than a year away. She also felt disconnected from her fellow athletes and friends. “With the travel, you build relationships with friends around the world. I think these experiences kind of connected us all together in a way. You’d see each other in Paris and say, ‘OK see you next week in Dubai!’ ‘See you next week in Istanbul!’”
It took time. Just like when she was a child adapting to two cultures, she needed to find her footing. “It definitely took me a few months to process everything,” she says. “I have to thank the family and my friends who called every day, who allowed me to vent every day. They would remind me of the bigger picture of what this could be—an athlete representing karate at the Olympics. Friends were telling me, ‘Because karate is a new sport, because this is the first time, it’s one shot where everybody in the world can see the sport.’” Further, she says, she knew that karate might never be part of the Olympics again after Tokyo. She might not get a second chance.
She began creating new routines, doing live Instagram teaching sessions and collaborating with athletes in Zoom classes and seminars, along with fun things like binge-watching TV shows with her host family. (A favorite: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) And she connected with a coach she had bonded with at an international conference. “I reached out and said, ‘Hey, I need some accountability. I need a reason to get up and do something.’ She said, ‘OK, we’re gonna train.’”
Her coach, Anta Badulescu, recalls how Kokumai was a bit “discombobulated” in the early days of the pandemic. “She went from having friends all over the world and seeing people all the time and being in this whirlwind to being in totally still water, with no one around. She was like ‘OK, so now what?’ You don’t have championships. Nobody knows what’s going on. Competitions were postponed and canceled, until they erased the whole season. For Sakura, there was a lot of uncertainty. There was no path.”
Badulescu notes that most Olympic athletes have a team around them, but not Kokumai; she was on her own, having coached herself into the Games while living on a tight budget. “That says a lot about her tenacity and her perseverance. It’s fantastic how much she sacrificed and how much work she put in,” she says. “It’s a very unconventional way of doing things when you look at the sports world, but she made it happen.”
Badulescu believes Kokumai’s cultural background was key to her moving forward. “She’s an interesting mix of the western and the eastern world. Her Japanese mentality was, you sacrifice a lot for whatever you have on your mind; with the western mentality, you have to enjoy a little bit. The two balance each other very well,” she says. “She was disciplined enough to know she needed a structure but adaptable enough to re-create a structure.” Further, she notes, “Bilingual people, when you think in one language, you behave in such a way; when you think in the other language, it’s like a transfer between worlds. She’s fully bilingual. She doesn’t have a second language in the two. They’re very well intertwined. I can see this dual nature.”
Kokumai and her coach faced many challenges, starting with learning to work together for the first time. “Everything we did was a hybrid,” says Badulescu. “There were a lot of conversations to come to this flowing system, and to come to this level of trust. She needed to perform, but I needed to perform for her.” Another hurdle: working together by video, with Badulescu based in Canada. She couldn’t physically touch Kokumai in her California garage to make adjustments—and couldn’t see her body from various angles at once. Badulescu recalls how she was always telling Kokumai to move her iPad “to this angle, to that angle” so she could see her body from all sides.
They made it work, using the “equipment” Kokumai had on hand—essentially, some mats, a table, buckets, a sofa. “You can lift water buckets for weights and for balance,” Badulescu explains. “You can jump on and off the table.” The sofa could be used for abdominals—a “brutal” exercise on a soft surface, says her coach.
In time, Kokumai regained her balance and drive. “The power of adapting, of being creative, figuring out your own way of training and competing, this stuff I’ve done my entire life,” she says. She also regained her perspective. “I get to represent karate in Japan. I get to represent my country and all the kids who love the sport and are looking forward to it. It gives children hope and stuff to dream about. I’m in a place where I can’t complain,” she says. “I’m in a place where I get to train and work toward my dream.”
There are always unexpected hurdles. This past April, she was verbally harassed and threatened during a workout in a California park by a man who targeted her because of her race. “Go home, you stupid b----,” he said in a video Kokumai posted on Instagram. “I’ll f--- you up.” Police later arrested the man, 25-year-old Michael Vivona, after he allegedly punched two elderly Korean Americans in the face at the same park.
In an essay she wrote about her experience on TeamUSA.org, Kokumai said, “Before my incident, I was aware of everything going on with Asian hate. I had multiple conversations with my friends about it. But unfortunately, I had to experience it to really understand. It put it into context for me, and made me want to spread awareness by speaking out. Even though, normally, I’m the type of person who likes to keep things private.” She continued, “I wish there was one thing that would fix this problem, but the first step is spreading awareness. And then we have to have empathy and compassion for one another. Over time we can help change things in the world for the better.”
She credits karate with helping her process the ordeal. “That was one of the lessons that I learned from karate: do better, be better. The learning process is never ending,” she wrote. “I think that mindset is very valuable, no matter your age or what stage of life you are in. I take karate with me, wherever I go and in whatever I do.”
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