Mariel Zagunis
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Qualified athletes go into limbo with Tokyo postponement

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For the 76 U.S. athletes who had already qualified for the 2020 Olympics, a new waiting game has begun, and many of them are talking through their mixed emotions on social media.

Shooter Kayle Browning‘s thoughts played out in real time. She gave a glimpse of her new routine on YouTube (after tending to her dog, who had to go out) but didn’t know whether she would keep her spot on the team. She learned afterwards that USA Shooting intends to keep its qualified athletes on the team despite the postponement.

Fellow shooter Phillip Jungman also went from sadness to relief: “When I saw the news that the Olympics was postponed, my heart dropped a little. A few hours later @usashooting put out an official statement backing all of their athletes that had earned Olympic berths. I just wanted to take this moment to thank them for supporting us all in this time of so much uncertainty.”

LIST: U.S. athletes qualified for 2020 Olympics

Other athletes were relieved that the uncertainty of knowing whether they would have time to train was no longer a problem.

Modern pentathlete Samantha Achterberg: “Lots of mixed emotions, but a sense of relief in some ways.”

Fencer Mariel Zagunis, who has qualified for her fifth Olympics, quipped that she’s throwing herself a “pity party” but was “glad a decision was made sooner rather than later.”

“Disappointed that I won’t be able to go out and fence in the Olympics in 2020, but I’m relieved that the IOC is putting global health first,” said fellow fencer Alexander Massialias.

Several athletes sounded as determined as ever.

“News of the postponement of the Olympic Games means its time to adjust the goggles and refocus,” said triathlete Summer Rappaport.

“Let’s roll,” said sailor Paige Railey. “One more year to become stronger and healthier!”

“I’ve waited my whole life for this moment,” said marathoner Molly Seidel. “To make the @olympics safer for everyone I’m willing to wait a bit longer.”

“If these past years have taught me anything it is that I am capable of going through hell and high water for the sake of achieving the Olympic Dream!” said taekwondo athlete Paige McPherson.

Sailor Charlie Buckingham spared a thought for Olympic organizers:

” I can’t help but think of Japan and what they’ve endured to host the games this summer, only to be faced with the current global situation. To have responded the way they did so quickly is impressive and knowing their culture, next summer’s show will be even better.”

The U.S. softball team is adding one year to a 12-year wait since the sport was last contested at the Olympics in 2008.

“(N)othing has changed as far as the mindset, the work ethic or the goal that we have as a team,” said Valerie Arioto.

Swimmer Ashley Twichell, who had locked down a spot on the open-water team, supported the decision but expressed disappointment and urged “everyone right now to acknowledge whatever feelings they’re having – anxious, sad, confused, lonely, scared, isolated, stressed, frustrated, just to name a few – and know that they are validated.”

But Twichell also drew inspiration looking ahead: “The Olympics can wait, and they’ll continue to be the beacon of hope that they’ve always been, perhaps now more than ever.”

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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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Tokyo Olympics to feature new sports, return of baseball, softball in 2020

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A look at new sports and new events with one year to the Tokyo Games, which will have the most sports (33) and events (339) in Olympic history …

New Sports
Baseball/Softball
Not entirely “new.” Baseball and softball were on the Olympic program in the 1990s and 2000s, but voted off following the 2008 Beijing Games. This could be the sports’ lone return to the Games. Baseball and softball were not proposed by Paris 2024 organizers, and it remains to be seen what will happen for Los Angeles 2028. It appears that MLB players will not take part (as it was in baseball’s previous Olympic appearances), but two U.S. Olympic softball stars of the past are hoping to get back to the Games — pitchers Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman.

Karate
Like baseball and softball, karate is not on the Olympic program beyond Tokyo. With modern origins in Japan in the early 1900s, the eight medal events should draw a crowd. There will be three weight classes per gender in the head-to-head fighting discipline of kumite, plus one men’s and one women’s division in kata, which is performed individually.

Skateboarding
The latest X Games sport to join the Olympic program. Skateboarding will feature two disciplines — street and park for men and women. Three-time Olympic snowboard halfpipe champion Shaun White showed interest in trying to qualify, but he has competed just once and that was last summer. Instead, teenagers and even preteens have taken up most of the early headlines, including Sky Brown, an 11-year-old, Japanese-born British athlete who would be the youngest Olympian since 1992.

Sport Climbing
This is not Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan, but it already has Olympic roots from the Youth Summer Games. One set of medals will be awarded per gender, combining three disciplines: lead, speed, and bouldering. From Tokyo 2020: Speed climbing pits two climbers against each other, both climbing a fixed route on a 15-meter wall at a 95-degree angle. Winning times are generally between five and eight seconds. In bouldering, climbers scale a number of fixed routes on a four-meter wall in a specified time without safety ropes. In lead climbing, athletes attempt to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring over 15 meters in height within a fixed time with safety ropes.

Surfing
The U.S. has a chance to rack up medals here, given it currently boasts the world’s top-ranked man (Kolohe Andino) and woman (Carissa Moore). Icon Kelly Slater, the 47-year-old, 11-time world champion, is in position to qualify but is unsure if he wants to fulfill all the eligibility requirements. The “father of surfing” is actually an Olympian — five-time swimming medalist Duke Kahanamoku, who asked the IOC to consider adding surfing to the Games a century ago.

Notable New Events
Basketball: 3×3
The format: Games last 10 minutes, or until one team scores 21 points. Games are played on a half-court with a 12-second shot clock, and offense immediately turns to defense after a team scores. Former Purdue star Robbie Hummel just led the U.S. men to a world title and is favored to be part of the four-man Olympic team given it’s highly unlikely NBA players will take part.

Swimming/Track and Field: Mixed-Gender Relays
Mixed-gender events make Olympic debuts in two of the Games’ marquee sports. In swimming, a mixed 4x100m medley is on the program. Mixed relays debuted at the world championships in 2015, and this extra event could help American Caeleb Dressel approach Michael Phelps‘ record eight gold medals at a single Games. In track and field, a mixed 4x400m is slated for the first two days of the competition schedule, before the individual 400m.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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