Ariel Torres competes in the men's karate kata finals at the Pan American Games Lima 2019 in Lima, Peru.
LIMA, Peru – Ariel Torres makes the Energizer bunny look like Eeyore.
Bounding off the podium, silver medal in hand, he can’t contain his excitement. His foot taps incessantly, he barely takes a breath between words. He has just faced his lifelong role model in the karate kata finals at the Pan American Games, and he’s ready for another round.
“I was so happy. I had the best form I’ve ever had in my life, felt the best I’ve ever felt, and I believe that was the best match you’re going to see here at the Pan American Games,” Torres said. “Now, it’s time to train hard and keep pushing, because I’m going to see him in Tokyo 2020. It’s going to be him and I fighting it out.”
For fans of long-lasting rivalries – Yankees vs. Red Sox, Ohio State vs. Michigan, Lakers vs. Celtics – the Pan American kata finals were as good as it gets. Torres earned a silver medal against men’s kata icon Antonio Diaz of Venezuela, and Sakura Kokumai defeated Maria Dimitrova of the Dominican Republic in women’s kata, just months after facing her at the 2019 Pan American Championships.
“We had the Pan American Championships in March this year, and I lost against her. It was for my fifth gold medal [at the event], but I lost,” Kokumai said. “It really meant a lot to come back stronger and faster, but also to show the world that I’m number one in the Pan American area.”
Kata is a karate practice in which detailed, choreographed movement patterns are performed individually or in teams of three. Each athlete performs a kata, a specific series of movements sewn together to showcase technique, precision, speed and power.
Every move an athlete makes throughout their kata must have a functional application, or bunkai, whether to block an incoming attack or strike an opponent. The kata routines are punctuated by kiai, when an athlete’s rising energy is released with a ferocious shout.
Kokumai unleashed several kiai throughout her kata, which was called Chibana Kushanku. She earned a score of 25.82, handily defeating Dimitrova, who was disqualified for announcing a different kata than the one she performed. As Kokumai walked into the athlete area following her performance, she did her best to hide her tears.
“The emotions just came out of nowhere,” she said. “When I won, I was just at a loss for words. I wanted to show that I am number one in the Pan American area, and I got it done.”
Torres performed a kata known as Annan Dai from the Ryuei Ryu style of karate. Teasingly known as “torito” or “little bull” by his coaches, he brought a boundless energy to the routine, flowing effortlessly between rapid, precise strikes. In the end, Torres fell just short, losing to Diaz, 25.85-25.46.
A legend within the world of kata, Diaz received thunderous applause as he exited the arena, pausing to sign several autographs for star-struck fans. Torres was thrilled for his opponent, and he will take tomorrow off from training to celebrate his silver medal. Then, it’s back to work.
“[Diaz has] always been my role medal, he is my role model,” Torres said. “I don’t take this as a defeat. I got the silver medal, but it was my gold-medal performance. Next time, I’m going to make it harder for him. I’m going to push him harder than he’s ever been pushed.”
Asked where his everlasting energy comes from, Torres didn’t hesitate.
“From my family,” he said. “My mom and dad sacrificed so much. My mom is blind in one eye, she works very hard. My dad is not American, so he works very hard. Ever since I was a little kid, we would pick up money in the street to afford to go to my local tournaments.”
Then, for the first time all evening, Torres paused. He held back tears.
“’I will lose my other eye for you,’ my mom said to me. ‘I want to die knowing you made it to the Olympics in 2020.’ And that’s my plan. I’m going to make it happen.”