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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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Eddy Alvarez, Olympic short track medalist, to play for Miami Marlins

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Eddy Alvarez realized his MLB dream, six years after earning a Winter Olympic medal, and during a global pandemic that affected his club more than any other U.S. professional sports franchise.

Alvarez, a 2014 U.S. Olympic short track speed skating medalist, is being added to the Miami Marlins roster for Tuesday’s restart of their abbreviated season, president of baseball operations Mike Hill said Monday, according to Marlins beat reporters.

The 30-year-old was among a group added after as many as 18 Marlins tested positive for the coronavirus last week, forcing the club to cancel seven games.

Alvarez is believed to be the first U.S. Winter Olympian to become a Major League Baseball player.

He may be the second Olympic medalist in a sport other than baseball to make it to the majors, joining Jim Thorpe. (Michael Jordan tried to do so with the Chicago White Sox, playing Double-A in 1994, but returned to the Chicago Bulls in 1995.)

Alvarez, a Miami native, played baseball in high school and at Salt Lake Community College before focusing on short track in 2012 for a 2014 Olympic run.

He came back from missing the 2010 Olympic team and surgeries on both knees, reportedly leaving him immobile and bedpan dependent for four to six weeks, to make the Sochi Winter Games. Eddy the Jet earned a silver medal in the 5000m relay.

Then Alvarez returned to baseball after three years away. He signed a minor-league contract with the Chicago White Sox in June 2014. He worked his way through the minors between that franchise and the Marlins system.

Alvarez was a Kannapolis Intimidator, a New Orleans Baby Cake and a Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.

Now, he’s a big leaguer.

“It definitely was a chance, picking up a kid who hasn’t played in three years who is starting at the age of 24,” Alvarez said in 2014. “It’s not your typical story, but I play like a 17-year-old kid. I’m running around everywhere. I’m diving around everywhere. I’m full of life. I definitely see my progression moving at a rapid pace.”

MORE: What Olympic baseball, softball return looks like in 2021

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Katie Ledecky balances glass of chocolate milk on her head while swimming

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Katie Ledecky will always remember Aug. 3 as the date she won her first Olympic gold medal, at age 15 in 2012.

Now, she can also associate it with the time she created another kind of buzz on social media.

The five-time Olympic champion posted video of her swimming the length of a pool while balancing a glass of chocolate milk on her head. Barely any, if any, milk spilled into the pool.

Ledecky swam as part of a new got milk? ad campaign.

“Hoooowww nervous were you when you did this?!” fellow Olympic champion and training partner Simone Manuel asked Ledecky on Instagram.

“I have never braced my core so hard,” Ledecky wrote. “It’s a great drill!”

“Try doing it breaststroke,” British Olympic 100m breaststroke champion and world-record holder Adam Peaty wrote.

“Is it wrong of me to think this is even more impressive than a few of your WR’s?!!!” wrote 1992 Olympic champion Summer Sanders.

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