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U.S. Karatekas Ariel Torres and Sakura Kokumai's Kata Gold Medals Mean More Than You Know

by Brendan Rourke

Sakura Kokumai poses on the podium with her women's individual kata gold medal during the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 03, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Alejandro Pizarro/Santiago 2023)

USA Karate’s Ariel Torres and Sakura Kokumai don’t worry about their sport’s fight to be in the Olympics.

Likewise, the pair of karatekas don’t focus on their past performances. Instead, they choose to stay present and focus on their future growth.

On a warm, sunny day in Santiago, Chile, Kokumai and Torres secured Team USA’s 99th and 100th gold medals of the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 inside the Centro Entrenamiento Deportes de Contacto. Afterward, the pair each expressed their medals' significance individually.

“Relieved, excited,” Kokumai began. “We had our world championships and the Pan Am Games back-to-back. So, it was a lot on our body and mind. I’m happy that I was able to perform. I actually enjoyed performing, soaking it all in.

“Being able to win again, following the Lima Pan Am Games, it means a lot.”

Kokumai had no idea she had just referenced making Pan American Games history.

When the kata scores for the gold medal final between Kokumai and Columbia’s Valentina Zapata appeared on the small projector tucked away in the back corner of the tatami mat, Kokumai was declared the winner, 41.10 - 39.40. According to the judges’ eyes, she executed her predetermined set of moves crisper and cleaner. After a bow towards the judges and mat, she screamed in excitement.

Kokumai became the first karateka, man or woman, to win back-to-back gold medals at the Pan American Games in kata.

“That’s crazy to hear,” she said. “I’ve just been focusing on performing my best. I’m here because of the past competitors.”

Throughout karate’s constant battle of staying within the rotation of sports that make the programs of both the Pan American Games and the Olympics, one thing has remained constant: The U.S. produces excellent kata competitors who are simply trying to be the best of their craft. Kokumai, a native of Honolulu, Hawaii, is no exception.

“(I’m) able to express myself,” Kokumai said when asked what drew her to kata. “Being a quiet and shy person, I think karate has allowed me to get everything out, in terms of emotions. So, I think it helped me save my life. I think it helped me just be who I am.

“Without the Pan Am Games or without the Olympics, I think I’ll still continue to do karate. I think it’ll be with me for the rest of my life.”

When Kokumai wrapped up her walk through the line of media members, it was time for Ariel Torres to take the mat for his gold medal matchup.

Ariel Torres poses on the podium with his men's individual kata gold medal during the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 03, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Alejandro Pizarro/Santiago 2023)

Before Santiago, Torres took home a bronze medal at the world championships in October. Rewinding to the Pan American Games Lima 2019, he took home the silver medal after Venezuela’s Antonio Diaz surprisingly struck gold.
However, Torres didn’t care about this chance at redemption. He knew he was going to win because he had a secret advantage.

His mother was watching him compete for the first time since he was a little kid.
“More than anything, I had my mom up there,” he said when asked about his redemption story. “Having her out here, I performed for her.”
Torres earned a 42.60 from the judges after performing his predetermined moves in the gold medal match. It was the highest score he received throughout the entire men’s kata competition — and the highest overall out of any kata athletes.
“I was just thinking, ‘My mom’s watching me, and I’m going to win for her,” he said. “I kid you not if I was just like this last week in the world championships, I would have been the world champion.
“So, yeah, redemption. But, I didn’t come with that in mind. I had my mom here, and I was going to make her proud.”
Torres celebrated in the stands with his mother after he received his medal. His mother wept tears of joy for her son, who has dedicated his life to this highly technical sport.

“I want to be the world’s best,” he said. “Unfortunately, at the world championships last week, my first ever, I got third. But I promise you, I found something here.

“I told my mom when I was a little kid that I’m going to do it. We sacrificed many things, from picking up money in the street, we didn’t have enough money for anything. And they sacrificed so much just for me to compete. I want to give her that promise I made to her when I was a little kid.”