Sakura Kokumai pocketed her second silver medal of the year -- and got one step closer to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 -- at the Karate1 Premier League stop in Salzburg, Austria.
It was déjà vu for the 27-year-old from Los Angeles, who found herself facing Spain’s Sandra Sanchez in the gold medal match in women’s kata, karate’s demonstration event. Once again, Sanchez, the reigning world champion, proved the stronger of the two, outscoing Kokumai 27.38-25.4.
Kokumai’s results in recent months have proven promising. Her second silver in as many weeks on the Premier League circuit matches her best-ever finish. The longtime U.S. team member’s previous standout year came in 2016, where she earned two bronze medals at Premier League events.
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But this season, which culminates with karate making its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, is special, and so far Kokumai, a seven-time U.S. champion, has risen to the occasion. She began her season with a bronze-medal finish at the Karate1 Series A event in Santiago, Chile, setting herself up for the medal finish in Dubai.
Two forms of karate, kata and kumite, will grace the Olympic stage this summer. Kata, which Kokumai specializes in, is a demonstration event in which athletes perform a series of predetermined movements at a time. Kumite, meanwhile, features one-on-one combat.
Premier League events play a large role in determining which athletes to advance to the Olympic tournament. Before Sunday, Sanchez was ranked No. 1 in the World Karate Federation Olympic rankings with 11,452.5 points, with Kokumai fifth with 5,197.5. The next Premier League stop will be in Rabat, Morocco, on March 13-15.
Additionally, Brian Irr took silver in the men’s kumite +84 kg. class, his first ever Premier League medal, after falling to Ukraine’s Ryzvan Talibov in the gold medal match.
The 6’4” athlete from New York, currently ranked 13th in the world, took gold at the 2018 Pan American Championship in Santigao, Chile. He owns several medals from Series A competitions, most recently a bronze won in Montreal in June of 2019.
Discovering karate would be an Olympic sport has helped Irr reach new heights in the sport. Determined to make a serious push for the Tokyo Games, he relocated to Dallas in order to focus more heavily on his training, a result that paid in silver Sunday.
Blythe Lawrence has covered two Olympic Games and is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. Follow her on Twitter @rockergymnastix.