June 24 (Reuters) - Five karatekas to watch out for at the Tokyo Olympics:
SANDRA SANCHEZ (SPAIN)
Once dismissed as too old to compete at the highest level, the Spaniard will be looking to add Olympic gold to her numerous honours just one month shy of her 40th birthday.
Sanchez started practising karate at age four alongside her older brother, rejecting her parents’ chosen activity for her - ballet. She has won a record 36 medals in the sport’s top-billed Karate 1 Premier League.
RYO KIYUNA (JAPAN)
With hardly a loss to his name on the world stage in recent years, the 30-year-old native of Okinawa - the birthplace of karate - is known for the power of his air-splitting punch and is hot favourite for gold in the men’s kata category.
Training under great karateka Tsuguo Sakumoto, Kiyuna has brought into his regimen the “Ryumai”, or local Okinawan dance, to achieve what his master calls “artistic awareness” and to incorporate Okinawan culture.
HAMIDEH ABBASALI (IRAN)
For the world’s second-ranked karateka for female kumite (+68kg), the Games’ one-year postponement was a blessing. The Iranian suffered a serious knee injury with two seconds left on the clock at the Karate 1-Premier League finals in Salzburg last year.
She won gold there against Italian Clio Ferracuti, but the injury took her away from the tatami for a year while she recovered from surgery.
KIYOU SHIMIZU (JAPAN)
A poster child for Japan’s karate in the women’s kata category, Shimizu - like her perennial rival Sandra Sanchez - was inspired to start karate after visiting her brother’s dojo as a girl.
But through most of her teens, the Osaka native struggled for success during her teens but in her final year of high school, she put pressure on herself by vowing to drop out if she didn’t win the national championship.
She won, and many victories followed, including one in 2013 that crowned her as Japan’s youngest national champion at age 19.
TZU-YUN WEN (TAIWAN)
After qualifying once for the Olympics in March 2020, the 27-year-old female kumite (-55kg) karateka had to do it all over again in a close contest after the Games were postponed.
An all-around athlete who has also played table tennis competitively, Wen counts her boyfriend Wei-Chun Hsu - also a karateka - as her biggest inspiration to persevere through difficult times, including when a major hip injury in 2013 threatened her career. (Reporting by Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo, editing by Ed Osmond)