Junna Tsukii has always bounced back from adversity.
After finishing the 29th South East Asian with just a bronze medal — way below the goal she set for herself — she discovered she suffered a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. By August the following year, she was already kicking her way to a bronze in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia — a remarkable achievement considering that it was less than a year after her ACL surgery.
In the 2021 Karate 1 Premier League held early March in Turkey, Tsukii was unceremoniously eliminated in her first match. She bounced right back by winning the Golden Belt Tournament in Serbia where she pitched training camp last November and again for two months this year.
“I decided to go to Serbia because I could not get enough training in Japan. In Serbia, we are honing our skills to make the right decisions during the game” she shared to Tiebreaker Times’ Midlife Halftime.
When the next leg of Karate 1 Premier League was held in early May in Lisbon, Portugal, Tsukii showed she had picked up valuable lessons from her setback in Turkey and was ready for redemption. She beat three karatekas ranked in the top 10 in the world, including a 2-time world champion, on her way to bagging the gold medal.
Emerging champion for the first time in one of the world’s toughest tournaments has been a huge boost for Tsukii. She bared, “I have won the bronze medal five times in the Premier League, but I was not satisfied. I really wanted a gold medal.
“Beating a strong opponent gave me confidence that I can compete at the world-class level”.
Tsukii, who was born in Pasay, remains in the hunt for a berth in the Tokyo Olympics where the minus-50 kg division she competes in will be merged with the minus-55 kg division. Automatic Olympic slots are reserved for the top four in the world rankings of her division. There will also be an automatic berth for the top Asian in the rankings who is not from the host country. World no. 2 Miho Miyahara of Japan is already booked a slot.
This early, she has already prepared herself mentally and physically to challenge larger opponents in the Olympics. “I have worked on my physical strength to get ready to fight in the heavier class. My current weight is three kilos heavier than last year. This is to have muscles built for speed and to prepare to fight big players.”
At this rate, the chances of Tsukii earning an automatic slot looks slim. She is ranked eighth in the world in her weight category. There are two other Asians who are higher than Tsukii in the rankings, world no. 3 Sara Bahmanyar of Iran and no. 4 Ranran Li of China. Tsukii defeated Bahmanyar this May in Lisbon during the Premier League.
But in typical Tsukii fashion, she just might find another path into the Olympics. There is a final Olympic qualifier on June 11-13 in Paris, France. Tsukii will be vying for one of the three slots in her division. With those who have gained automatic slots out of the way, the only other karatekas from the minus-50 kg category ranked higher than Tsukii who might still be competing in the qualifiers are Li and no. 7 Bettina Plank of Austria.
Tsukii said she will be joining the national karate team which is currently preparing in Turkey. For the final stretch of her preparations for the qualifiers, she intends to pitch camp anew in Serbia.
“You can lose if you make a small mistake during the game. I want to be able to calmly decide what to do and prepare for a quick response.”
The 29-year-old Fil-Jap remains the best hope for the Philippines in karate, a sport that is making its debut in Tokyo. When faced with a situation where others will see there is no available way through, Tsukii has proven her dogged determination enables her to always create a way to push forward. That just might be enough for her to punch a ticket to the Olympics.