"I don't want the younger kids, especially people in the AAPI community, to be scared all the time. We are all in this together, we are all strong. We belong here," Sakura Kokumai tells PEOPLE

By Karen Mizoguchi
April 09, 2021 11:38 AM
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Sakura Kokumai
Credit: Harry How/Getty

Sakura Kokumai isn't letting a recent incident stop her from achieving her Olympic dreams.

The 28-year-old athlete was targeted in a racist rant at the Grijalva Park in Orange, California, where she regularly trains. Kokumai is hoping to become the first Olympic gold medalist in karate, which is one of five new sports added to the Games program.

"It wasn't until later when I realized what happened — at the time you don't think much and just try to process what was happening, that maybe I was targeted because of how I look," she recounts to PEOPLE.

Kokumai, a first-generation American who was born to Japanese parents in Hawaii and lived in Japan as a child, was "minding my own business" at the local park where she usually goes to once a week when a man approached her and yelled at her.

"I try to go to the park to do some sprints for training. Most of the time, I go to get some fresh air and running is a way to get stress out," she explains. "It helps me when I'm running outside. It's something I do every day, but on that day I was about to go on a run and was on the phone with a friend as I was heading into the park."

The athlete says that she was FaceTiming with headphones in while entering the park, so didn't notice that someone was yelling at first. Only when she removed the earbuds did she realize that a man was directing his screams at her.

Kokumai remembers feeling "frustrated" and "mad" as the man continued berating her. "He came closer and started yelling. The racial slurs didn't come out until the very end. Before that, he noticed how short I was, how small I was. He did mention that he could hurt me or whoever I was talking to. That's when I felt a little bit scared," she says.

"I looked around and there were people at the park so I made sure I didn't put myself in danger as well because you just never know. I was aware of the environment and trying to see if something were to happen, there would be people. But I saw people and noticed they didn't do anything. Towards the end, when it escalated, a lady with a dog came by to ask if I was okay. Until then, one guy looked at me and smiled before walking away," the star describes.

Kokumai posted the footage she recorded during the incident on social media and later received an outpouring of support. But the Olympic hopeful tells PEOPLE, "It isn't about me. This is nothing compared to what you see on the news."

"People are getting hurt, people are getting stabbed, killed. People who are older or way younger. That's the thought that scared me: there are people who are targeting Asian Americans or AAPI in the community. There are people around who are watching and not doing anything," she says. "I thought about my family — they're not here — but what if this was my grandma? What if this was my mom? I know that I practice karate, I know that I'm quick on my feet. If something were to happen, I know that I can handle myself. But at the same time, you just never know."

Kokumai has been continuing her training since the incident. "It's not like I can't train. I have to train," she says. "The discipline that I have is allowing me to push myself and get out of the house, do what I need to do. It's not a good feeling to look over your shoulder every now and then. But I try to tell myself that I am bigger than this and that I can rise to the occasion."

When asked about the Olympics and why she still wants to represent Americans who may feel the same way as the man who spoke to her at that park, Kokumai says: "I am proud to be Japanese American. I am proud to represent karate, which is a martial art that came from Japan. I'm proud to be who I am. The fact that I'm able to represent the U.S. in Japan, in Tokyo — of all places — really means a lot to me. That was the point of me sharing my story. I wanted people to know that they are not alone in this."

"I want to represent this country and want to represent my sport well."

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"Any obstacle that I face, I try to rise above it and give back to the community. This is really about the next generation coming up too. I don't want the younger kids, especially people in the AAPI community, to be scared all the time. We are all in this together, we are all strong. We belong here. That's what I want to show with my journey to the Olympics," she continues.

"I only ask for people to have empathy and compassion. If they see anything, I hope they reach out and help. This is not something that should be normalized. ... This isn't anything new. The fact that I am able to talk about it and raise awareness is the reason why I'm doing it. People should know this is real," Kokumai adds.

Sakura Kokumai
Sakura Kokumai
| Credit: Tommaso Boddi/Getty

As the Summer Games approach, many U.S. athletes will be without their loved ones at the venues as Japan made the decision to bar foreign spectators due to fears that international visitors could carry the coronavirus into the host country. Luckily for Kokumai, her family will be able to watch in person.

"I'm in a very fortunate position because I do have family in Japan. It's just a matter of them trying to get tickets," she says. "I feel very lucky to have people supporting me from both countries. If it weren't for the senseis I met in Japan, the friends, and teachers, I would not be who I am today. People who I met growing up in Hawaii too. And here in California. I hope I see familiar faces in the crowd when I go to Tokyo. At the same time, I know there will be a lot of supporters in the U.S. who will cheer me on from their screens."

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer on NBC.