US karate Olympian: How I trained during a pandemic and embraced global comradery

My Olympic story is uniquely American, bridging my two worlds as a Japanese American. Now, more than ever, we could use some more bridge building.

Sakura Kokumai
Opinion contributor

It has been a tumultuous time for everyone: The COVID-19 pandemic killed millions around the world while causing the postponement of nearly all sports, cultural events, concerts and the much anticipated Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games. Lockdowns and social distancing have isolated people and kept them from their loved ones, while social unrest in the United States added to the uncertainty.

For the past year, Olympic athletes like myself have been waiting for our chance to compete and shine on the global stage. This year more than ever, we must use this moment to recognize all that we have in common and come together as one to rise from the ashes of this pandemic – rather than focusing on what makes us different.

My Olympic story is uniquely American, and I take pride in how it binds together the two worlds in which I grew up as a Japanese American in Hawaii. I started learning karate in my local dojo in Honolulu to connect with and understand Japanese culture. It grounded me in a sport brought to the Hawaiian islands in the late 1800s and practiced for centuries before by our Japanese ancestors.

I've traveled back and forth to Japan since I was a kid, and my love for karate and appreciation for Japanese culture deepened over time. I trained with Japan’s top instructors throughout my high school, college and graduate school years, and their lessons set me on my path to the Olympics.

An honor, and a challenge

For a time, I pursued a withering schedule of both working full time in Tokyo and pursuing karate. I would start my day early so that I could be at my desk by 8:30 a.m. and then I’d often practice kata movement during work breaks. By 3:30 p.m., I’d be off to my dojo at Waseda University, where I’d train late into the evening.

Olympian Sakura Kokumai in the Team USA opening ceremony uniform by Ralph Lauren.

But when Japan chose karate as an official sport for the 2020 Games, I quit my job and moved to California in 2017 to focus all my attention on preparing for the Games. Today, I’m the seven-time U.S. champion in kata and ranked in the world’s top five.

The opportunity to compete in the Olympics isn’t something I ever imagined. Tokyo is the first Games to stage a competition for my sport: the kata discipline of karate. I’m thrilled and in awe of wearing a Team USA uniform in the prestigious Nippon Budokan. This is the hall where Asian martial arts were first staged in the Olympics at the 1964 Tokyo Games – I’m honored and humbled to step into the same arena as those who came before me. 

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Yet, training and competing haven’t been an easy process, especially during the pandemic. Just like many office workers, Olympic athletes also took to Zoom to train remotely with coaches and teammates. For a while, it was disorienting. I used cameras and wore earphones to relay my intricate kata movements to my strength and conditioning coach in Toronto. I had to hold myself accountable to practice on my own, but scheduling time to practice with partners from around the world also helped.

The pandemic, and the isolation, helped me appreciate how important community is – especially whenever I connected virtually with my fellow karate peers and competitors from around the world. Karate also prepared me for this moment – teaching me patience, calm and strength in the face of adversity. I was shocked – mentally and physically – when the Games were originally postponed, but it was the right thing to do at the time, and this past year has made me stronger personally and as an athlete.

The beauty of empathy

Those qualities also helped me overcome a racist verbal attack this spring while I was training in a public park in California. An unknown man threatened me, screamed racial slurs and told me to go home. Weeks later, he was arrested after allegedly assaulting an elderly Korean American couple. Since the attack, I’ve been heartened by the flood of support from both Americans and Japanese imploring me to be strong and go for the gold in Tokyo. Despite the attacker’s goal, I am more determined and motivated than ever.

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Today, I’m looking forward to showing the world the beauty of my sport. The kata is unique in martial arts in that it doesn’t involve physical combat. Instead, a sole competitor retraces centuries-old ritual movements to display power, agility and grace with the aim of preventing an assailant from even considering an attack. 

I hope my performance will inspire others to feel empathy toward their neighbor – whether it’s the family next door or someone on the other side of the world. We have all experienced such hardship during COVID-19, I’m truly hopeful the Tokyo Games can help people everywhere heal from this dark and traumatic period.

Sakura Kokumai, USA Karate

Sports also has the unique ability to inspire and break down the barriers of race, ethnicity and nationality that too often divide us. I hope the world will rally behind the athletes traveling to Japan – everyone has someone they can cheer for. This will be a unique competition, especially without the international fans who normally provide athletes like me with so much inspiration. I’ll miss the cheering and energy, but I know that keeping fans home will make everyone safer – from the athletes and coaches to the staff and locals in Tokyo. The light of the Olympic flame won’t be diminished.

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I’m entering my final weeks of training, and I’m keenly aware of the challenges Japan faces in staging the Olympics and Paralympics during such trying times. We must all take personal responsibility to do our best to follow and promote the health guidelines. But I’m also increasingly confident that Japan will do everything necessary to protect athletes and staff. I know that the Games, as they’ve done throughout history, will uplift people around the world and create a shared sense of purpose and community once again. 

Sakura Kokumai is the first American to qualify in karate for the Olympic Games. She will compete in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics.