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La Jolla Athlete of the Week: Back from break, Koji Lavinsky takes gold, bronze in World Karate Championships

Koji Lavinsky stands atop the podium at the 2021 Karate World Championships in Romania.
(Yenny Setiawidjaya Ho)

For La Jolla High School junior Koji Lavinsky, winning karate championships is a matter of heart and hard work.

In late September, Koji, 16, took home two gold medals and a bronze medal at the World Union of Karate-do Federation’s World Karate Championships, where he represented the United States in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Koji was one of more than 1,300 athletes from 35 countries who competed at the championships.

“I feel good about it,” Koji said of earning the medals. “I didn’t think I was going to win, because I took a break for two years and I just got back into it.”

“I was burnt out,” he said. “I was just over karate.”

But then a few friends asked him to join their team for kata — choreographed, detailed patterns of movements or forms in the sport.

Koji, who has been practicing karate since he was 4, said: “I like the competition and the adrenaline you get. And that’s what brought me back to karate after quitting.”

He said he also “missed the winning.”

La Jolla High School junior Koji Lavinsky wears the three medals he earned at the World Karate Championships.
La Jolla High School junior Koji Lavinsky wears the three medals he earned at the World Karate Championships last month in Romania.
(Yenny Setiawidjaya Ho)

Once Koji took up karate again, he qualified in July for the USA Karate Federation’s Junior National Team for both kata and kumite, which is sparring or fighting. He said he will join the team for an upcoming training camp at the Olympic training center in Colorado.

To prepare for the championships in Romania, Koji trained weekly in Irvine with sensei Chad Eagan at Eagan’s martial arts gym, Jinen Kai.

Eagan, a 38-year veteran of martial arts who has trained more than 60 international champions in the 18 years since opening his dojo, said Koji “has a tremendous amount of talent.”

Eagan said he watched Koji during previous competitions before the teen started training with him in March and said Koji “is a very well-rounded athlete.”

Eagan said most elite athletes will choose to focus on either kata or kumite. “It’s very rare to find an athlete that’s going to excel in both at an international level,” he said. "[Koji] has the ability to excel internationally in both.”

Koji, who also skateboards, snowboards and plays golf, is “very athletic,” Eagan said, though “I don’t want that to get mistaken with the fact that he’s a hard worker.”

Despite Koji’s long break from the sport, “he was able to push through the workouts,” Eagan said. “He’s got a lot of determination, a lot of heart. … That’s really 90 percent of it.”

Koji continues to travel weekly to train with Eagan in Irvine and said one of his goals is to participate in the 2023 Pan American Games, held every four years ahead of the Summer Olympics.

His collection of 2021 achievements “makes me want to keep going, makes me want to just practice more and compete more, see where it takes me,” he said.

Until now, Koji said, he hasn’t spoken much publicly about his karate prowess, as people often regard the sport as “childish. … People don’t really know what it’s about and they judge it too quick.”

He said he wants people to know karate is “not just all fighting; there’s different aspects to it and different events. … It’s hard.”

Koji said his favorite components are “respect [and] discipline. I like how you really can’t go anywhere if you’re not putting in a lot of your time and all your effort.”

“If you’re not trying to improve all the time, nothing is going to happen,” he added. “You’ve got to just look forward.”

La Jolla Athlete of the Week features athletes from all sports in high school (La Jolla High, The Bishop’s School, La Jolla Country Day School) and other local youth sports. We’re looking not only for the stars of competition but also for student-athletes who set an example for teamwork, academic achievement and/or community involvement. Please email your nominations, and a way to reach your nominees, to Editor Rob Vardon at robert.vardon@lajollalight.com.