It’s been a tumultuous time for everyone: the COVID-19 pandemic killed millions around the world while causing the postponement of almost all sporting, cultural events, concerts and the highly anticipated Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. Lockdowns and social distancing have isolated people and distanced them from loved ones, while social unrest in the United States has added to the uncertainty.
For the past year, Olympic athletes like me have been waiting for our chance to compete and shine on the world stage. This year more than ever, we need to use this moment to recognize how much we have in common and come together to rise from the ashes of this pandemic – rather than focusing on what makes us different.
My Olympic history is uniquely American, and I’m proud of the way it connects the two worlds I grew up in as a Japanese American in Hawaii. I started learning karate at my local dojo in Honolulu to connect and understand Japanese culture. It anchored me in a sport brought to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1800s and practiced for centuries previously by our Japanese ancestors.
I have traveled to Japan since I was a child, and my love for karate and my appreciation for Japanese culture has deepened over time. I trained with the best instructors in Japan throughout my high school, college and graduate years, and their lessons put me on my way to the Olympics.
An honor and a challenge
For a while I was on a hectic schedule of working full time in Tokyo and doing karate. I would start my day early so I could be at my desk at 8:30 am, then would often practice the kata movement during breaks from work. By 3:30 p.m. I would have left for my dojo at Waseda University, where I would train late in the evening.
But when Japan chose karate as the official sport of the 2020 Games, I quit my job and moved to California in 2017 to focus all my attention on preparing for the Games. Today I am the seven times United States Champion in Kata and classified in the the five best in the world.
The possibility of participating in the Olympics is not something I have ever imagined. Tokyo are the first Games to organize a competition for my sport: the kata discipline of karate. I am delighted and impressed to wear an American team uniform in the prestigious Japanese Budokan. This is the hall where Asian martial arts were first presented at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. I am honored and honored to enter the same arena as those who came before me.
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Still, training and competing has not been an easy process, especially during the pandemic. Like many office workers, Olympic athletes also used Zoom to train remotely with coaches and teammates. For a while, it was disorienting. I used cameras and headphones to convey my complex kata movements to my strength and conditioning trainer in Toronto. I had to hold myself accountable for practicing on my own, but making time to practice with partners around the world also helped me.
The pandemic and isolation helped me appreciate the importance of community, especially whenever I connected virtually with my karate mates and competitors from around the world. Karate also prepared me for this moment – teaching me patience, calm and strength in the face of adversity. I was shocked – mentally and physically – when the Games were initially postponed, but it was the right thing to do at the time, and this past year has made me stronger personally and as a athlete.
The beauty of empathy
These qualities also helped me overcoming a racist verbal attack this spring while training in a public park in California. A stranger threatened me, shouted racist slurs and told me to go home. A few weeks later he was arrested after would have attacked an elderly Korean American couple. Since the attack, I have been encouraged by the outpouring of support from the Americans and the Japanese begging me to be strong and go for gold in Tokyo. Despite the striker’s goal, I am more determined and motivated than ever.
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Today, I can’t wait to show the world the beauty of my sport. The kata is unique in the martial arts in that it does not involve physical combat. Instead, a single competitor traces centuries-old ritualistic moves to demonstrate power, agility, and grace in an attempt to prevent an attacker from even considering an attack.
I hope my performance inspires others to empathize with their neighbor – whether it’s the family next door or someone halfway around the world. We have all experienced such hardships during COVID-19, I truly hope the Tokyo Games can help people around the world heal from this dark and traumatic time.
Sport also has the unique ability to inspire and break down the barriers of race, ethnicity and nationality that all too often divide us. I hope the world will rally around the athletes heading to Japan – everyone has someone they can cheer on. It will be a unique competition, especially without the international fans who normally provide so much inspiration to athletes like me. I will miss the cheers and energy of the fans, but I know that keeping the fans at home will make everyone safer – from athletes and coaches to staff and the people of Tokyo. The light of the Olympic flame will not be diminished.
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I am entering my final weeks of training and am very much aware of the challenges Japan faces in hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games in these difficult times. We all need to take personal responsibility for doing our best to follow and promote health guidelines. But I am also increasingly convinced that Japan will do whatever is necessary to protect the athletes and the staff. I know the Games, as they have done throughout history, will uplift people around the world and once again create a common sense of purpose and community.
Sakura Kokumai is the first American qualified in karate for the Olympic Games. She will compete in the Tokyo 2021 Summer Olympics.