By Jean Malanum

BEST BET. Filipino-Japanese karateka Junna Tsukii (right) in action during the Karate 1 Premier League in Fujairah, United Arab Emirates last year. Tsukii will banner the national team in the Southeast Asia (SEA) Karate Federation Championships and the Cambodia SEA Games this year. (Contributed photo)

MANILA – The national karate team has a busy schedule this year, starting with the Southeast Asia Karate Federation (SEAKF) Championships that will be held at the Ninoy Aquino Stadium on March 17-19.

The tournament is expected to showcase the region’s cream of the crop who will also compete at the SEA Games to be hosted by Cambodia on May 5-17.

“More or less, the SEA Games players will be there at the SEAKF Championships. But they (countries) can also hide their players if they want,” Karate Pilipinas president Richard Lim said in an interview on Wednesday.

Filipino-Japanese Junna Tsukii, the world’s No. 3 and 2022 World Games gold medalist in the minus 50kg. category, will lead the country’s campaign in both competitions.

The 31-year-old based in Japan is set to join the first leg of the Karate 1 Premier League in Cairo, Egypt on Jan. 27-29 before going to the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the national karatekas are training twice a day, five times a week at the Philsports in Pasig City.

They have a new foreign coach, Turkish Levent Aydemir, who took over while compatriot Arpa Okay is away.

Aydemir served as Türkiye’s national team head coach from 2009 to 2022. He also handled the deaf national team (2012-2022) and the Kuwait national team (2001-2008).

During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Turkey won four medals – one silver from Eray Samdan (men’s kumite minus 67kg.) and three bronzes courtesy of Ugur Aktas (men’s kumite plus 75kg.), Ali Sofuoglu (men’s kata), and Merve Coban (women’s minus 61kg.).

He has produced many Asian, European, and World champions during his 22 years of coaching.

Aydemir showed his eagerness to meet the Filipino players that he joined the team practice the day after he arrived in Manila on Jan. 17.

“Yes, I am excited to coach my new team. When I am on tatami, I have the same feeling,” shared the 52-year-old coach who was born and raised in Istanbul.

When asked what can he do for the Filipino karatekas, Aydemir replied, “I’ll show them how to win, of course. These athletes have to want it first. It’s teamwork. Not only a coach can do it.”

As an athlete, the 5-foot-8 Aydemir won medals at the Mediterranean Championships (gold), European Junior Championships (bronze), and European Senior Open Championships (bronze), competing in the kumite minus 75kg. category.