Despite COVID and Controversy, the Tokyo Olympics Are Underway. Meet 3 SoCal Contenders

From sailing to karate, SoCal is well represented at the 2021 Olympic Games

For plenty of athletes, the already long road to the Olympic Games was just a little bit longer thanks to a postponement caused by the global pandemic. But following a nearly audience-free opening ceremony, the 2021 Olympics got underway today, and a bunch of Southern California athletes are part of the action. Here are three to root for.

Jordan Wilimovsky

Malibu’s Wilimovsky is the first American swimmer to qualify for both Open Water and Pool events. With a little luck he’ll be first to bring home hardware in both.

“With open water, anything can happen,” says the 27-year-old, who still works with the same coach, Dave Kelsheimer, as he did as a teen on Team Santa Monica.

Wilimovsky is the second fastest Open Water swimmer in U.S. history, after winning one gold, two silvers, and a bronze at the World Championships. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, he just missed the podium, coming in fourth in Open Water and fifth in the 10k.

His training regimen includes swimming 16,000 meters a day, six days a week, to put him in contention against top competitors like 2016 gold medalist Ferry Weertman from Holland, and 2019 Worlds winner Florian Wellbrock of Germany.

“You could be a favorite, but I don’t see it that way,” he says. “When you’re out there racing, someone could have a great swim or you get caught in back. But anyone has a shot at winning that day.”

Sakura Kokumai

Earlier this year, martial artist Kokumai was working out at a park in Orange, California, when a white man threatened and berated her. The 28-year-old spoke out about the hate crime and was even invited by U.S. Rep. Katie Porter to attend the President’s State of the Union address last April.

“I knew what was going on in the country, especially with the pandemic and the rise of anti-Asian hate,” she says. “I thought it was really important to share my story so people know that no one is immune to hate and we have to be there for each other to protect ourselves.”

Sakura grew up in Hawaii, where she took her first martial arts class at the YMCA at age 7 and was hooked. She later moved with her family to Japan, but in 2016, she relocated to Southern California to concentrate on her sport.

“I knew that I needed an environment where I could focus on karate,” explains the athlete, who specializes in “kata,” a non-combative form performed solo in front of judges. “I was really confident in what I wanted.”

Charlie Buckingham

When it comes to the Laser, a one-sail dinghy commonly used for recreation, Charlie Buckingham got good fast. Though he grew up in Newport Beach, he only committed to Laser racing in 2011 at the age of 22. Five years later, he found himself at the Rio games where he finished eleventh.

“I didn’t really believe in my ability to do it until probably my junior year at college,” the 32-year-old shrugs, recalling his days at Georgetown University. “I improved quickly and had a good first season.”

Since April, Buckingham had been training in Portugal, where the wind and waves approximate conditions in Tokyo. Closer to home, he trains in Long Beach, and feels a strong kinship with other Golden State sailors.

“The U.S. had a really strong Olympic sailing team [in Rio] and a lot of the guys were from Southern California,” says the first-time Olympian. “I always look up to the [older] guys, they were my idols.”

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