By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff Writer Karate champion Ayumi Uekusa is a busy athlete. One morning, she was a guest on a TV show featuring the Tokyo Games, and the following week, she was at an event demonstrating karate techniques in front of spectators.
Three-time winner at the Japan Cup Karatedo Championships, Uekusa serves as an active ambassador of karate and has been under the spotlight as a potential contender for the gold medal at the Summer Games in Tokyo, where the sport will appear for the first time as an Olympic event.
For the 26-year-old, however, the PR role and attention as a medal hopeful bring no added pressure.
“Honestly, I’m really happy [to be in that position],” Uekusa said in a recent interview in Tokyo.
“Rather than feeling pressure, I just want to win the first karate Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Uekusa hopes karate, which is still considered “a minor sport,” will draw more attention with less than two years until the Games.
“Ahead of the Olympics, I’d like to see the sport draw increased attention, have more people understand the appeal of karate and cap that off by winning the gold medal.”
Uekusa initially got involved in karate when she was a third-grader. Although it all began when she accompanied a friend to his lesson, it didn’t take her long to be enthralled by the intriguing martial art.
By the time she was a fifth-grader, she had already earned a third-place finish at the national championships for elementary school children.
“From that moment, I began feeling this desire to win bouts and improve,” Uekusa recalled.
She competes in kumite (sparring) events in which two competitors use striking, kicking and punching techniques in a 120-second bout for the female division.
While in kata (forms) — the other karate event — competitors demonstrate a series of movements against a virtual opponent. Judged mainly for accuracy, speed and strength, Uekusa compared the attraction of kata to the artistry figure skaters display.
Uekusa, who has prepared for kata events in the past, said, “I was drawn to kumite because I like thinking about my next move in bouts, analyzing what my opponent is trying to do by reading physical mannerisms and facial expressions.”
Kumite matches can take place only when there is an opponent. However, back in her middle school days, Uekusa had no one to practice with as most of her karate peers started playing tennis, which became extremely popular because of a cartoon series. Training against dummies, not a real person, she found her performance lacked luster.
The bitter experience made her grateful to have opponents. “I learned I should never forget to pay respect to my opponents,” she said.
Major realization of a minor sport
Uekusa’s career as a karateka, or karate practitioner, further flourished at Teikyo University, where many of the nation’s top athletes enroll. She struggled initially, but steadily carved out a path to the world-class level, managing to secure third place at the World Seniors Karate Championships in 2012.
However, she was far from upbeat about her future when Tokyo was chosen to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in her third year of university, because of her longtime belief: “I can’t make a living as a karateka.”
Back then, there were few companies that were comfortable enough with their grasp of karate to offer sponsorship competitive athletes. Under such circumstances, with a limited time to allocate for training, it would have been extremely difficult to continue as a top karateka aiming to be the best in the world.
Like many female karateka, Uekusa was “ready to leave the sport” after graduating from university because “I didn’t want people to see my performance waning.”
In 2016, the announcement came that karate would be included at the Tokyo Games after failing to win a spot in the Olympic program three times.
Leading up to that time, Uekusa’s bubbly personality began creating opportunities for her to promote the sport. However, she admitted that she was initially not entirely sure if she was the right person for such a role when other karateka had performed better in competition.
In many interviews, she expressed dreams, hopes and goals that exceeded her ability — including winning Olympic gold.
Although Uekusa felt uncertain about the credibility of her words, she felt strongly about creating a world in which media attention would be normal for karateka. This compelled her to stick to her mission.
“I also felt that the people in the media who chose me for those interviews have laid the tracks for me to win at the Olympics,” she said.
Since that time, she began winning titles one after another in competitions at home and abroad. “I just realized the importance of the power of words,” she said.
Among the changes she adopted in the course of aiming for the 2020 Games, valuing the meaning of words came as a top priority.
“I’ve learned that the words I have spoken have all come back to me, so now I try to speak things into existence.”
Aiming for Asian gold
Uekusa is set to compete at the ongoing Asian Games in Jakarta.
“It’s going to be a warm-up for the Olympics,” she said. With participants representing their countries and an athletes’ village nearby, the environment in Jakarta will be quite similar to that of the Olympics.
“As a member of the Japanese team, I’m determined to win,” she said.
After the Asian Games, she will compete in competitions every month until the end of the year.
“This Asian Games will be the switch [leading up to the Tokyo Olympics],” she said.
Uekusa once said she would retire from competition after 2020, but has since changed her mind.
“Those who have won gold at the Olympics said after that they wanted to try to win it again. So now I’m not sure when I’m retiring,” she said.
If retirement is her choice, she hopes to pour her passion into fostering the the next generation of karateka.
“Like models and celebrities, athletes are role models for children practicing the same sport,” she said, expressing a firm belief that sports figures should be good people.
Uekusa hopes to be such a figure for many young karateka looking past 2020.