Sakura Kokumai, who began taking karate lessons as a 7-year-old in her native Hawaii, is the first American to qualify for the Olympic Games in the sport.
The World Karate Federation announced the first 32 qualifiers on Wednesday, taking the four highest-ranked athletes in the Olympic standing for each of eight categories, after the final tournaments in the ranking period were cancelled due to the global coronavirus pandemic. The eight Japanese athletes who will use the host nation quotas were also named. Karate will make its Olympic debut later this year in Tokyo.
Kokumai, 27, competes in kata, an event in which athletes perform a series of predetermined movements, more akin to a gymnastics floor exercise than a traditional combat bout. Only 10 women and 10 men qualify for Tokyo in the kata competition.
The other qualifiers were named across three men’s and three women’s weight classes in kumite, which is one-on-one sparring.
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Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Kokumai got her start in the sport at a local YMCA, and she has continued progressing from there. She made the junior national team at age 14, and now has a handful of domestic and international championships to her name, including seven U.S. titles and six Pan Am titles, in addition to a bronze medal at the 2012 world championships.
More recently, Kokumai won a silver medal at the Karate1 Premier League tournament in February in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, marking her best finish in the sport’s top international circuit. Then she won another one two weeks later in Salzburg, Austria.
Prior to this season, her best year had been in 2016, when she earned two bronze medals at Premier League events.
Kokumai, who now calls Los Angeles home, attended college in Japan and later worked there, according to a CNBC article.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movements for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.