Ranked 5th in the World, Sakura Kokumai Is the First American to Qualify For Olympic Karate

The World Karate Federation has the first 40 athletes to go to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 today, including the first (and so far only) American to qualify: Sakura Kokumai, a 27-year-old Hawaii resident who has been doing karate for 20 years.

“21 qualifications over the course of two years. Traveling, training, just walking into the ring. Not easy. But I never gave up”, Kokumai wrote on Instagram. “Tokyo … I’ve come to get you.” Kokumai participates in kata, a discipline in which athletes compete alone and perform a series of precise and powerful movements before a jury. In an interview with CNBC, Kokumai described it as “figure skating without music. “(In the other Olympic discipline, kumite, athletes spar against each other to determine a winner.) Only 10 men and 10 women in total will participate in Olympic kata this year, making Kokumai’s qualification even more impressive.

The WCF was forced to cancel the last Olympic qualifying tournaments due to the coronavirus pandemic, Team USA reported, prompting the federation to withdraw qualifications based on their current global rankings. (For the time being, the Olympics themselves will begin as planned in late July.) Now qualified are the top four athletes in each of the eight Olympic categories: kata and the three weight classes kumite for men and women. The eight Japanese athletes who fulfilled the quota of the host country were also announced.

Kokumai is arguably Team USA’s best hope for a medal in karate, with silver medals in two Karate1 Premier League tournaments this year and a 2019 Pan American Games gold. She is currently fifth in the world. (A Japanese athlete qualified for her under the host country quota, paving the way for Kokumai.) Karate is one of four sports to debut in Tokyo this year, and we will definitely be watching Kokumai as they gold.

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