The Tokyo Games will be a unique experience for Sakura Kokumai. Not only will she get to participate in karate's Olympic debut, but she'll get to do so in a country that's near and dear to her heart. Though Kokumai was born and spent much of her early years in Hawaii, she also spent a lot of time in Japan, where she went to school and has family. The Olympics will be an unforgettable experience for Kokumai regardless of the outcome, but after capturing gold at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, she's hoping to come home with a lot more than just fond memories.
As part of our preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, NBC Olympics sent questionnaires to a wide range of athletes to learn more about their lives on and off the field of play.
Here’s some of what we found out about Sakura Kokumai:
Tell us about your family.
I come from a Japanese family. Both of my parents are Japanese, and I have one younger brother. We both grew up playing all kinds of sports, and karate just happened to be one of them.
Parent influence on Olympic career?
My parents have supported me through it all since day one. My dad is the quiet one, he doesn't say much, but he always tries to understand what I am doing. My mom on the other hand has always been involved. She drove me to practice, morning and night, and comes to competitions as much as she can. She's strict ... really strict.
Who do you live with?
I currently live with a host family in California. I made a decision to quit my job so I can become a full-time athlete when karate was officially announced as an Olympic sport for Tokyo. I didn't have anywhere to go, and that's when the Stevens opened the door.
They had one extra bedroom and they treat me as if I was a part of their family since day one. I am barely in California; sometimes 7 days a month because of the competition schedule. Because of that reason, it's been hard to find a place where I can call home, or a place to call my own, but the family there has been very supportive and kind since the beginning.
How has your hometown shaped who you are today?
Hawaii played a huge role. Being surrounded by nature and also starting karate there. It has built my foundation, everything about me started there.
Earliest memory of karate?
I grew up looking up to athletes in a dojo in Hawaii. Starting karate at the age of 7, I knew there was something about karate that made me go back every time to train. Karate is not like basketball or soccer where you can go out there and just have fun. Karate involves lots of focus and seriousness. I remember we weren't allowed to smile or goof around during training. But for some reason I loved that environment.
A lot of the athletes had their on and off switch. You can see a big difference in how they act inside of the dojo and outside of the dojo. And maybe that's what drove me into the sport. Once I put the karate uniform on I felt like a complete different person, like a samurai, and I loved being able to have that switch.
Also, there were two worlds champions in the dojo in Hawaii. I looked up to them a lot growing up and loved seeing them compete.
Specific breakthrough moment?
It was 2012 World Championships in Paris, France. I was about 20 years old, and it was my second world championships I ever attended, and that year I placed third.
I was able to share the podium with my teammate from the same karate school. She represents Japan but we both trained under the same coach. It was such a surreal moment, because most of the athletes there were people I saw only through DVDs or YouTube. To be able to win a bronze medal at that competition was a big deal for me.
That competition overall was a blur because I was so focused on my performance. I didn't even know I made the semi final match, let alone the bronze medal match.
This competition changed my life. It was the moment I realized I was one of the best in the world.
What's the most grueling workout you've ever done?
I've trained non-stop for 10 hours straight. No lunch break or dinner break. We were just allowed to eat bananas and of course water, but nothing else. It was probably one of the most interesting, grueling and mentally challenging experiences I've ever had.
What would you change about karate?
I want people to see what karate truly is. It's not about breaking bricks or punching each other. It's an art, a lifestyle and people can benefit from it and apply it to their daily lives once they understand. But unfortunately because of movies and TV shows its portrayed differently. It's an art form, especially with my own discipline; which is kata. Once people understand and see what we do I think they can appreciate the art more. Its like figure skating ... but without music!
Earliest memory of watching the Olympics?
I remember watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics on TV, while I was at physical therapy working on my knee in Hawaii. Everyone's eyes were glued to the screen and I remember watching these athletes flipping and jumping and was just amazed with what they could do.
I have always been a huge fan of the Olympics. Winter Olympics and summer Olympics. I watched it all the time. All different kind of sports too. I sometimes imagined how my life will be different if I played a sport that was in the Olympics. How different will my life be? And how cool will it be to be able to say "I am training for the Olympics"?
Karate was not in the Olympics then and it didn't seem like it would ever be in it. So when I watched the Olympics, it felt like I was watching something that was completely out of my own reach. But now I am happy and excited to say I am training for the Olympics! I am really living the dream.
Advice you'd give a young karateka?
Have passion in what you do and have the patience. Everything takes time, but if you put in work, the result will show.