With less than six months to go before karate makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo, Sakura Kokumai had a breakthrough Sunday at the Karate1 Premier League tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
The seven-time U.S. champion from Los Angeles fought her way into the women’s kata final, where she earned silver in the contest against defending world champion Sandra Sanchez of Spain. Though Sanchez totaled 27.54 points for the win, Kakumai was not far behind, holding her own for 25.82.
This was Kokumai’s best Premier League finish, having earned two bronze medals in 2016.
Karate will make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, with competition in kata and kumite. Kata is a demonstration event, where athletes complete a series of predetermined movements, whereas kumite is one-on-one combat.
Kokumai is establishing herself as a contender for Tokyo. Her 2020 was off to a good start at a Karate1 Series A event in Santiago, Chile, last month, where she took bronze in the women’s kata category. She followed up with a fifth-place finish at the first Premier League in Paris two weeks later.
Premier League results play an important role in Olympic qualification, with the top four athletes in each class’ Olympic standing qualifying for the Olympic tournament come April 6. Premier League results have the highest event factor, along with world and continental championships. With 5,197.5 points, Kokumai currently ranks fifth in the World Karate Federation Olympic rankings, where Sanchez is No. 1.
The 27-year-old’s long career on the U.S. national team extends back to 2007 and has included a fistful of international first-place finishes, the most recent coming at the 2018 Pan American Championships, also in Santiago. Kokumai, who was born in Honolulu, also won a bronze medal at the 2012 world championships.
The Karate1 Premier League is the equivalent of a world cup series in karate, with seven events in six different cities stretching from Rabat, Morocco, to Moscow, where athletes aim for the title of Grand Winner.