The window to living her dream opened at least a little bit more for Shannon Nishi-Patton when she swept her five karate matches at the Pan Am Games and won a gold medal Saturday.
But Nishi-Patton still doesn’t know how close she is to making it to Tokyo when karate will debut as an exhibition sport at the 2020 Olympic Games.
The former Team USA assistant coach from Honolulu came out of a five-year retirement as a competitor in 2017. That was when after some back-and-forth it was decided karate would be part of the Tokyo Olympics.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m back in.’ I always promised myself I would try if it was going to be in the Olympics,” said Nishi-Patton, 34, who also played basketball at the University of Hawaii after a multi-sport career at Mid-Pacific Institute.
There will be a total of 10 competitors in each weight class at the Olympics, and there will only be three weight classes instead of the usual five for karate.
“Our qualification system is messy,” Nishi-Patton said, in a phone interview Sunday from Lima, Peru, site of her victory. “There are still a lot of tournaments and a point system. Some will get in through the point system, some through this, some through a tournament in Paris next spring.”
Nishi-Patton said one male and one female will be selected based on how well they did at the Pan Am Games.
“It could be from any weight class,” said Nishi-Patton, who competed in kumite (freestyle fighting) in the 50 kg (110 pounds) division.
“It’s definitely good momentum,” Nishi-Patton said of her second Pan Am Games gold (she also won in 2011, and has two bronze medals in world championships). “But every tournament, every day is an opportunity.”
Her next opportunity for qualifying points is at a tournament next month in Tokyo.
“I love Japan, been there a handful of times,” said Nishi-Patton, whose grandparents are from Japan. “Traditionally it’s where it all started, so for all karate practitioners it’s a special place to us.”
Here’s Nishi competing in 50kg kumite at the U.S. Open Elites in 2017:
One of her grandfathers was a boxer, but Nishi-Patton was not encouraged to take up martial arts by her parents.
When she was 6, she was in an A-Plus after-school program that had karate classes. “I already loved watching (Jean-Claude) Van Damme, Bruce Lee. So I’d sit outside and watch the class. It took a month to convince my parents to let me do it,” Nishi-Patton said. “They finally realized it was a good thing for me and my brother (Chad), two hyper kids, to channel our energy.”
She won numerous national and world championships as a junior, and despite four ACL injuries also played softball, soccer, volleyball and basketball at Mid-Pac.
The 5-foot-2 guard walked on to the UH basketball team in 2003. Nishi-Patton lettered three times, but rarely played on the way to earning a master’s degree in counseling.
“I obviously wanted to play a lot more than I got to, but I chose to make lemonade out of lemons and appreciate the opportunity, make friends, and be a part of that collegiate athletics vibe,” Nishi-Patton said. “It was a totally different vibe than high school sports. A lot of good experiences. It helped me learn to push for things I wanted.
“Karate and basketball were definitely my first loves,” she said. “But karate is what I was born to do.”
When not competing, she is a sensei at Kachi Karate and works in sales. She also helps her husband, Kenny Patton, in his sports training company.
“She helps with my big clinics and instantly is a favorite among the kids,” Patton said.
Patton, a former UH football player, is also a black belt in karate. Nishi-Patton said they met when they “were about 5 or 6,” competing for different karate clubs. They married in 2012.
“I have the best husband, family, students, training partners and coach (Maile Chinen-Koncal) back at home,” Nishi-Patton said after winning in Peru. “My support doesn’t end there. I had a great friend and teammate (Maya Waso) come from New York to Hawaii to help me prep for the (Pan Am) Games as well. My support network is deep. I never fight alone and that feeling is always priceless.”
Another international champion from Hawaii, Elisa Au Fonseca is also making a run at the Olympics. Au Fonseca, 38, did not compete at the Pan Am Games.
“I talk to her all the time,” Nishi-Patton said of Au Fonseca, a Punahou and UH graduate who now lives in Chicago. “She’s still family. Definitely my big sister.”