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Sakura Kokumai, from YMCA to Japan to host family, becomes first U.S. Olympic karate qualifier

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Sakura Kokumai, a first-generation American whose parents are from Japan, became the first U.S. Olympic qualifier in the new Olympic sport of karate.

World Karate announced the first 40 global qualifiers on Wednesday, taking the four highest-ranked athletes per gender in the eight Olympic medal events after the final qualifying tournaments were canceled due to the coronavirus. One host-nation athlete from Japan also qualified per event.

Kokumai, a 27-year-old, eight-time national champion ranked fifth in the world in the kata discipline, was the lone American among those first qualifiers. It came at the end of a two-year qualifying process with more than 20 competitions.

“I’ve known for about two weeks, but I’ve just been waiting for that last confirmation,” Kokumai said, noting she found out via social media. “So that waiting part was super hard. But as soon as I got it … I think everything that I was holding on kind of released then. I was excited, happy, everything that I went through kind of just all the emotions came out all at once.”

The other karate discipline, kumite, is the head-to-head fighting discipline. In kata, athletes complete a series of predetermined movements and are judged on speed, strength, focus, breathing, balance and rhythm.

Kokumai, born in Hawaii, began taking karate lessons at age 7 at a local YMCA. She eventually moved to Japan to study (earning a master’s in international culture and communication), train and work.

“Karate in Japan is like what football is to here,” Kokumai said in November. “You can get scholarships, like sports scholarships, like big time from junior high, high school to college, and even after college you can find a job in a company and still do karate representing that company.”

Two or three years ago, Kokumai’s coach died and she moved back to the U.S. A family friend in Santa Clarita, Calif., offered a bedroom to her.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted training for many U.S. Olympic hopefuls, but karate can be practiced anywhere.

“So that’s something we’re all thankful for, especially for kata athletes, for our discipline,” Kokumai said from California, where she has always trained by herself. “It’s a good thing that karate doesn’t need much equipment. All we have to do is keep on training with the space we have. So in that sense, I’m not too worried at all. I actually shouldn’t be because the environment for me hasn’t really changed in terms of training. So just trying to just praying that it all goes away.”

NBC Senior Olympic Researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report.

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Bobby Joe Morrow, triple Olympic sprint champion, dies at 84

Bobby Joe Morrow
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Bobby Joe Morrow, one of four men to win the 100m, 200m and 4x100m at one Olympics, died at age 84 on Saturday.

Morrow’s family said he died of natural causes.

Morrow swept the 100m, 200m and 4x100m at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, joining Jesse Owens as the only men to accomplish the feat. Later, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt did the same.

Morrow, raised on a farm in San Benito, Texas, set 11 world records in a short career, according to World Athletics.

He competed in one Olympics, and that year was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year while a student at Abilene Christian. He beat out Mickey Mantle and Floyd Patterson.

“Bobby had a fluidity of motion like nothing I’d ever seen,” Oliver Jackson, the Abilene Christian coach, said, according to Sports Illustrated in 2000. “He could run a 220 with a root beer float on his head and never spill a drop. I made an adjustment to his start when Bobby was a freshman. After that, my only advice to him was to change his major from sciences to speech, because he’d be destined to make a bunch of them.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Johnny Gregorek runs fastest blue jeans mile in history

Johnny Gregorek
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Johnny Gregorek, a U.S. Olympic hopeful runner, clocked what is believed to be the fastest mile in history for somebody wearing jeans.

Gregorek recorded a reported 4 minutes, 6.25 seconds, on Saturday to break the record by more than five seconds (with a pacer for the first two-plus laps). Gregorek, after the record run streamed live on his Instagram, said he wore a pair of 100 percent cotton Levi’s.

Gregorek, the 28-year-old son of a 1980 and 1984 U.S. Olympic steeplechaser, finished 10th in the 2017 World Championships 1500m. He was sixth at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

He ranked No. 1 in the country for the indoor mile in 2019, clocking 3:49.98. His outdoor mile personal best is 3:52.94, ranking him 30th in American history.

Before the attempt, a fundraiser was started for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, garnering more than $29,000. Gregorek ran in memory of younger brother Patrick, who died suddenly in March 2019.

“Paddy was a fan of anything silly,” Gregorek posted. “I think an all out mile in jeans would tickle him sufficiently!”

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