Kokumai Confirmed as First U.S. Karate Olympian

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Sakura Kokumai poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood.

By TODD KORTEMEIER, Team USA

Sakura Kokumai first saw her name appear alongside the word “Olympian” back in March 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were postponed, the karate Olympic qualifying system was revised and athletes had to wait until May 25 to have their Olympic fates confirmed.

Kokumai found herself in the same spot — among the first 40 karate athletes officially qualified for the Games. Kokumai ranks as the fourth kata athlete in the world, securing her place. She is the only one among the 40 from Team USA.

It’s been a long wait for both Kokumai and the sport of karate, as both will be making their Olympic debuts in Tokyo. The discipline of kata that Kokumai practices is based on progressing through a series of movements. Athletes receive scores from judges on their technical execution.

Kokumai, 28, first took up the sport at the age of 7 in her native Hawaii. Growing up, she lived in both Hawaii and Japan, where her parents are originally from. Kokumai now lives in San Diego.

Kokumai committed to the kata discipline at the age of 16, and by 2012 won her first world championships medal. A seven-time national champion at the senior level, Kokumai has been a member of the national team since 2007. She owns six senior Pan American championships and in 2019 captured the gold medal in individual kata at the Pan American Games. She’ll hope to bring home a medal of a similar color from Tokyo.

“Karate has been a part of my life for a long time now,” she told TeamUSA.org in September. “It may be new to the Olympics, but there are so many karate practitioners around the world, and I think that people who practice karate have a relationship with the sport that’s very personal. I’m hoping the Olympics will allow people to see what we do and why we do what we do.”

Kokumai demonstrates her kata at Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu dojo in Little Tokyo in March 2019. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

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