Last March, as the world shut down due to the pandemic, Sakura Kokumai learned that she had accomplished what she had worked for and had dreamed of for years. She was going to the Olympics to represent the United States in karate.
That is, if the Tokyo Games were going to happen.
“For us the Olympic qualifier is a very long process, and we were competing every month for about two and a half years, like two years. When I realized I had enough points, that was when the pandemic started, which was 2020 March,” Kokumai explained. “So it was like this mixed emotions of knowing that all the hard work paid off. And at the same time you hear that it's going to be postponed. So it's like, OK, like I'm in, but oh my God, is it actually going to happen? What's going on?
“A lot of emotions happened there, but I was definitely relieved to know that I made it because the journey was long and I had so many people supporting me along the way. I think I was crying and I was laughing at the same time.”
The Olympics, of course, were postponed, not canceled. Kokumai, 28, will be in Tokyo to compete in karate, the sport with its genesis in the host nation of Japan. It’s also the country where her family comes from and where some of her family continues to live. Though the Japanese government and the Tokyo Organizing Committee are still deciding on whether fans will be in the stands, Kokumai knows she will have family nearby as she is competing.
“To be able to go back and compete there and to have people cheering for me is everything,” she said. “I know that there's a lot of conversations about audiences and how much people they're going to allow in. But knowing that I'll have people there, no matter what, even if they're not at the venue, definitely it all helps. Especially when it's competing at the Olympics.”
Kokumai competes in kata, the type of karate that’s not about combat but about showing the forms of karate in a specific pattern.
The seven-time national champion likes how kata allows her to express herself but still practices kumite, the combat side of karate. Unfortunately, she came close to needing to use her martial arts skills in an Orange County park in April, when a man started screaming racial and misogynistic slurs at her.
“It was one of those moments where we were taught to just be in a position where we don't have to use karate as a martial art,” Kokumai said. “Definitely at that moment I was like, ‘OK, if anything were to happen, I just have to use this to defend myself and I can't be the first person to do anything.’ In a way I'm glad that I didn't have to.”
The man who harassed Kokumai was arrested nearly three weeks later after allegedly punching two Korean Americans — a 79-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman — at the same park.
“I was shocked and even more disappointed because I know he actually physically attacked two elderly people before that arrest,” Kokumai said. “It really made me feel, I don't know. I just didn't know what to do at that time, because I honestly -- I wish I was there because I know he was at the same park.
“It was one of those things where I thought, ‘Oh, if only I could be there, I would have actually stepped in to help these two people.’ Fortunately, they weren't severely injured, but they did get hit. I'm glad that the people at the park stood up and protected the couple. Now that he's arrested, it gives me, I guess, a little sense of safety even going to the park.”
With the incident behind her, Kokumai can focus on the Olympics and bringing home some hardware.
“The goal is to win the gold medal in Tokyo. At the same time, I just want to make sure that karate is well represented at the Olympics this year,” she said. “This is the first time for us to be a part of the Olympic Games. Currently, I know that we are not in Paris (for the 2024 Olympics). So as an athlete who's representing the country and representing the sport, I really hope that we make a good impression at the Olympics in Tokyo.
“My sensei always used to say, ‘If you are not aiming high, then what are we training for?’ So definitely being there and competing, giving my best performance, I know that the results will come.”