Twenty-two-year-old Marella Gungob never thought she would ever visit Japan.
“Never in a million years, in my wildest dreams,” Gungob said Thursday morning in the Juneau Shotokan Karate Club.
But that’s just where she and 14 other advanced karate students from the United States are headed next week for a eight-day exchange with the Kakehashi (“Bridge”) Project. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan operates the exchange program with North America to “foster greater understanding of Japanese politics, society, history and foreign policy.”
With the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo just around the corner, the exchange program sought out U.S. students in karate, one of the new additions to the upcoming summer games.
International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF) Alaska Regional Director Susan Jones thinks karate will be a great addition to the 2020 Olympics.
“I think that even though it is an individual sport — because everyone advances on their own abilities and capabilities — it’s also a sport in which you can improve your character and improve your physical abilities,” Jones said.
According to the ISKF Alaska Region press release on Gungob’s selection, the Games will feature 80 competitors in karate under eight men’s and women’s events.
Thus, after spending a day at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo on Tuesday, the group will move on to Okinawa and visit the Okinawa Karate Kaikan Museum, which opened in 2017 to commemorate the birthplace of karate.
The Consular Office of Japan in Anchorage approached Jones in the fall in search of candidates for the exchange. The office’s two main criteria — an advanced karate student in high school or college with strong leadership skills —fit Gungob’s profile.
“Marella came to mind right away,” Jones said.
Jones contacted Gungob’s instructor, Diana Stevens, to see if Gungob might be interested. She was, and Gungob sent in a resume and Stevens sent a letter of recommendation.
In December, Gungob was informed she was selected.
Gungob enrolled in the Juneau Shotokan Karate Club in 2009 as a 13-year-old. She stuck with it ever since then and is now a second-degree black belt. Gungob graduated from Thunder Mountain High School in 2013 and enrolled at the University of Alaska Southeast, where she is pursuing a business degree.
“It’s a lifetime endeavor, believe it or not,” Gungob said of the sport. “You don’t just stop once you get your black belt. You keep improving your character and there’s always something to learn. So we never stop learning and through the years you just grow this bond with the people you train with and then it extends out to other people across the United States.”
Gungob said karate has raised her work ethic in all endeavors in her life. She says discipline has carried her this far in the martial art — going to practice even when she doesn’t want to.
Gungob’s mom, Miriam Wagner, is grateful for the influence of Shotokan Karate in her daughter’s life. She said Stevens “co-raised” Gungob with her.
“As a parent … I cried,” she said receiving the news. “I can’t describe how very grateful I am for Shotokan Karate Club.”
Gungob plans to use her personal Facebook to document the trip.
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.