With Karate’s Olympic Future Uncertain, Sakura Kokumai Eyes Strong Showing At Pan Am Games
by Joanne C. Gerstner
It’s going to be a hectic couple of weeks for U.S. karateka Sakura Kokumai, and she’s fully engaging her travel survival mode skills.
Kokumai, who lives in Los Angeles, has been training at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the past few weeks and recently won bronze in women's kata at the world championships in Budapest, Hungary. She now has a quick turnaround to get to Santiago, Chile, for the Pan American Games, where the karate competition runs Nov 3-5.
Suitcases, planes, airports, hotels, taxis and buses are part of her life as a top karateka, and she knows how to prepare for success in the women’s kata event.
“When I know my life is going to be intense, like it will be, I try to plan ahead to I can be strong,” said Kokumai, who is aiming to win a medal at the world championships and defend her 2019 gold medal at the Pan Am Games.
“I’m normally a pretty anxious person, so being prepared for something like a 13-, 14-hour flight from France to Chile means I need to take care of my body well. It sounds simple, but making sure I am well hydrated, get sleep, eat well and do my mental preparations, help me keep my body in really good shape for competition.
“Doing those things help me be ready for competing at my best in Budapest and Santiago.”
A native of Honolulu, Kokumai comes into the Oct. 24-29 Budapest competition ranked No. 5 in women’s kata, an event in which athletes are judged based on a series of predetermined technical movements. The key, she said, is keeping herself in a good headspace. Karatekas at this level all know each other, thanks to years of competitions. There are few secrets or advantages to be discovered by this point. Her edge to win is confidence and maintaining her focus.
“You have to show yourself with confidence and strength, showing the crowd and the referees that you are there to win,” said Kokumai, who finished fourth at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. “I feel everything matters: your facial expression, your eyes, your energy, all you bring to the ring. I’ve really discovered and grown in those things, and I want to express that power over the next few weeks.”
Kokumai’s gold-medal performance in the Pan American Games Lima 2019 in Lima, Peru, holds a special place in her heart. It was her first trip to the Pan Am Games, and being part of Team USA for a multi-country, multi-sport competition was special.
“I really loved it. I expected it to be big, but it was even bigger with greater vibes than I expected,” Kokumai, 31, said. “I like to ‘cocoon’ myself before I compete, so I like to stay in my room and really get into my head to be focused and balanced. I did not get to see much of the Pan Am experience, or even Lima, until I was done competing. Then I was like, ‘Wow! Look at the pretty lights! Look at this store!’ The closing ceremony was so beautiful and fun.
“That’s probably what’s going to happen to me this time too: I am going to cocoon, compete and then discover how cool everything is in Santiago and around me in the village.”
Karate, a martial art with roots in ancient Japan, was added to the Olympics for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, which were ultimately held in 2021. Kokumai wasn’t happy to learn that the sport will need to wait at least 11 years, until the Olympic Games Brisbane 2032, for another appearance. The sport was left off the Olympic program for next year’s Olympic Games Paris 2024, and the Olympic Games LA 2028 followed suit.
Kokumai had hoped to compete in L.A. and then end her career on that perfect note.
The world championships remain the pinnacle of karate competition, but the Olympic Games provided the most visibility to inspire future karatekas. The loss of another chance at the Olympics makes big events like the Pan Am Games even more important, Kokumai said. She wants to use her career and passion for karate as a vehicle to promote the sport to kids.
“It was ironic, because I was in Colorado Springs when they announced karate was not in (for 2028), so it was a thing to realize I we won’t be on Team USA for the Olympics for a while,” she said. “I think I am more stunned right now. The emotions will really come after the Pan Am Games are over. I can’t let it mentally affect me right now. I am very disappointed. I have seen how much karate has grown, at the community level, because of the Olympics.”
Kokumai continued, “Karate was a sport before Tokyo, in all countries and continents, and we will be after the Olympics too. I just feel so bad for all the kids, like 10-11 years old, who were telling me they were excited and dreamed of being in the Olympics. They saw me on a poster, part of Team USA, and were inspired to make their own Olympic dreams.
“I am going to think, after Pan Ams are over, how I can bring awareness to the sport without the Olympics? That’s going to be my mission, so kids don’t quit. We need to leave things better for the sport than when we got into it.”