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3 Olympic hopefuls on how their AAPI heritage shaped their journey

U.S. Olympian Sakura Kokumai and gymnastics hopefuls Akash Modi and Yul Moldauer spoke about the role their culture played in their journey and fighting the recent tide of anti-Asian hate.
U.S. Gymnastics Championships 2019 - Day 1
Yul Moldauer competes on the rings during the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Missouri.Jamie Squire / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

In a life often spent straddling two cultures in Hawaii and Japan, Sakura Kokumai has always been able to count on karate to make her feel at home.

Now the sport has brought her to the precipice of history after it was added to the Olympics for the first time this year.

For Akash Modi, 26, the Olympic dream was jump-started by seeing a gymnast who looked like him competing for Team USA at the 2008 Olympics. As for fellow gymnast Yul Moldauer, 24, all it took was a friend’s mother asking him if he wanted to join a gymnastics class when he was 7, and he was on his way.

Sakura Kokumai is bidding to become one of the first U.S. medalists in history in the newly-added sport of karate at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. David Becker / Getty Images

While Moldauer and Modi still have to qualify for the Olympics at next month’s U.S. men’s gymnastics trials in St. Louis, Kokumai has already punched her ticket to Tokyo, a place the Hawaiian-born daughter of Japanese parents knows well. The threads of all the cultures that helped raise her will intertwine when she tries to make history as one of the first U.S. medalists in karate.

“Karate originated from Japan, and I’ve experienced living in Japan, so to be one of the first to represent the U.S. for the sport is an incredible honor,” Kokumai told TODAY.

For all three competitors, being an Asian American Olympian at the Tokyo Games has also taken on particular significance in a year where anti-Asian hate incidents have surged in America during the pandemic.

TODAY spoke with Kokumai, Modi and Moldauer about how their culture and upbringing shaped their Olympic journeys, what their experience has been as Asian Americans in their respective sports, and what it would be like to compete for Team USA at a time when the Asian American community has faced so many incidents of hate across the country.

Learning to love their sport

Kokumai’s first exposure to karate was like a lot of kids who have tried the sport. She took classes after school at the local YMCA when she was 7 years old.

It soon became way more than a hobby, as she thrived to the point where she began attending a local karate school that has produced multiple world champions. Her family was familiar with the sport from Japan, where several of her cousins also participated in it, so it was a natural fit.

She continued with the sport while at Roosevelt High School in Honolulu, but then decided to attend college in Japan, where she had traveled with her family over the years.

“Karate in Japan is like what basketball or football is in U.S. Schools have karate teams or clubs, and you can get athletic scholarships,” she said. “My parents wanted me to go to school and get that (academic) part done, and I wanted to continue with karate and do well with it.”

She got her undergraduate degree at a university in Kyoto and then a master’s degree in international culture and communication at Tokyo’s Waseda University, all while competing in international karate competitions. She is a seven-time USA national champion who has earned numerous medals at events around the world competing in the kata discipline, in which the athletes perform a series of highly detailed offensive and defensive movements alone.

Just like karate is often a sport that parents will have their rambunctious children try out, so is gymnastics. Modi’s career began when his parents had a coupon for one free month at a local gym near their home in Marlboro, New Jersey, which was cheaper than having him bounce all over the furniture in their house.

Akash Modi is hoping to inspire more gymnasts of South Asian descent to take up the sport just like his own relative once did for him. Francois Nel / Getty Images

He took to it immediately, but his aspirations really grew when he watched Raj Bhavsar compete at the NCAA Gymnastics Championships in 2003. Bhavsar, whose father is a cousin of Modi’s mother, went on to earn a bronze medal as a member of Team USA at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“Watching Raj do well, you don’t see Indians doing gymnastics at the highest level,” Modi said. “So seeing him do it, made me feel I can do it, too. Not only because he’s my family, but because you see an Indian guy do so well and go to the Olympics. Because up until then, it was just mostly white and Black people.”

In addition to being one of the few athletes of Indian descent in the sport, Modi, 25, went on to become a five-time All-American at Stanford University and an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team. He’s now hoping for one more Olympic shot.

“I feel like as an Indian in gymnastics, I am inspiring future generations as a representative for our culture in this sport right now,” he said. “I want to leave a good impression. I want to make it known to Indians that this is a sport that Indians can and will excel at, if they put the effort into it.”

Moldauer, 24, who was born in South Korea and adopted as a baby by Peter and Orsa Moldauer, also took to gymnastics at an early age while growing up in Colorado.

“When I was younger, I didn’t realize what the sport was until I started watching the Olympics,” he said. “All I knew at that time was to be on TV. I just took a whole positive outlook in my whole gymnastics career.”

He went on to become one of the most decorated collegiate gymnasts of all time at the University of Oklahoma, and now looks to have a strong chance to be a part of Team USA in Tokyo.

‘I didn’t know it was discrimination at the time’

Modi and Moldauer did not feel like they were treated differently while rising up the gymnastics ranks as Asian Americans, but they did notice subtle differences.

“Looking back, I definitely went through discrimination that I didn’t know was discrimination at the time,” Moldauer said. “It wasn’t like every day, but it was like, ‘You’re only good at gymnastics because you’re Asian,’ because at the time people thought Asians had the best body types for gymnastics.

“There were times I didn’t really understand discrimination. But at the same time, if I wasn’t a gymnast and was an average Asian American, I might have seen the discrimination more. Gymnastics has given me a better opportunity, and people can see something in my life that isn’t just related to the color of my skin.”

Modi felt the difference in something as simple as the food he was offered.

“In high level of athletics in general and the Olympic Training Center, all the food feels catered to white people because 95% are white people,” he said. “Being vegetarian is a struggle, but also the taste of the food is something I’ve noticed. The vegetarian comments were subtle racism — people telling me I won’t make it because I don’t eat meat. But that’s how my culture is and I can be fine without it.”

Kokumai grew up in a majority Asian American community in Hawaii in a sport with many Asian American athletes, so she did not experience discrimination. However, when she lived in Japan, she often struggled with her identity.

“Japanese people are not used to having people with different cultural values, so they see somebody like me who looks Japanese, but acts and speaks like an American, and they see me differently,” she said. “I was a very confused kid growing up.

“A lot of people in Japan would be like, ‘You have a Japanese name, why are you American?’ They just don't understand the concept of it. It confused people there, but I always saw myself as a girl who's from Hawaii, always proud to be an American.”

She was heartened to learn that her Olympic berth for the Tokyo Games made national news in Japan, where it prompted congratulatory words from the Japanese national team coaches.

“I feel like before, the Japanese people didn't care if I was Japanese or not because I represented the U.S., so I was overwhelmed when heard that,” she said. “Having the Japanese national team reach out is a big deal for me.”

Speaking out against AAPI hate

In a year where reports of violent, anti-Asian incidents across the country have surged, Kokumai and Moldauer have shared their personal accounts of enduring slurs firsthand.

The reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate released a report earlier this month that found that the number of anti-Asian hate incidents jumped from 3,795 to 6,603 in March alone.

“A lot of fear, anger, scapegoating and grief from the pandemic has become Asian focusing,” Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and the forum’s founder, told TODAY.

Moldauer shared on Instagram in March that a woman pulled up alongside him while he was driving in the Denver metro area and yelled, “Go back to China!”

“For me I was in shock because one, why are you so mad at me? Two, you cut me off. And three, I’m not Chinese, I’m Korean American,” he said. “It’s such a tough situation and people get so emotional and say dumb things.”

Incidents like the encounter with the woman, as well as all the reports of violence against the AAPI community, have kept Moldauer on edge.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s been a little stressful, especially with the coronavirus,” he said. “That it’s a Chinese flu. It’s disturbing because if I walk into a store people might automatically assume that I might have COVID or that they have to stay away more because of me being Asian.

“It definitely has been uncomfortable within the last year. Now since the violence is going on, I never know what people are thinking. You always have to watch your back a little extra and be careful what you say. To see stuff like this going on, it just makes me sad because if we all just educated ourselves we’d be in a better place right now.”

Kokumai also endured anti-Asian hate firsthand in April, when she shared a video on Instagram of a man threatening her and yelling slurs and profanity while she was working out at a park in southern California. She had never experienced anything like that while growing up in Hawaii, so it was stunning to her.

“I understood that it was happening in our country, but it’s not until you experience it yourself that you realize it can happen to anybody,” she said. “Representing this country and this flag in a sport from Japanese culture, I thought it was important to spread the word about it to make people more aware.”

The suspect in the incident, Michael Orlando Vivona, 25, was arrested on April 18 after police said he punched a 79-year-old Korean American man and his 80-year-old Korean American wife in the face.

“When I found out that the same guy who verbally attacked me actually hit two elderly people, I was so frustrated and mad,” Kokumai said. “It just feels helpless at times.”

Representing the U.S. in Tokyo

The increased violence and slurs against the AAPI community can make it a confusing time for an Asian American athlete about to represent the country in a global competition like the Olympics.

“It hurts to know that you have to represent people who have discrimination in them,” Moldauer said. “You represent the entire country when you wear the U.S. flag on your jersey.

“For me to be Asian, if the camera were to come on me in the Olympics I would say, ‘Look I’m Asian, I live in America, and I just represented the United States. Don’t ever tell me to go back to China.’ But it should never have to come down to that. It should be fully supportive.”

“You still get people who see Asian Americans as foreigners and not as ‘real’ Americans,” Jeung said.

Kokumai is hoping the Olympics can be a unifying force for all Americans while also showcasing karate as a sport and dispelling any stereotypes.

“I think that’s what excites us is to be seen as athletes, rather than us breaking bricks or wood, which I have never done in my life,” she said.

Kokumai enters the games ranked No. 6 in the world in female kata, according to the World Karate Federation. This also could potentially be her one and only shot at a medal because karate has yet to be picked up for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Like many Olympians, she has one thing in mind.

“Gold is the goal,” she said.