Steve Kornacki's first time in Tokyo was memorable in many ways (and no, not just because of the limited supply of his signature khakis).
Speaking with PEOPLE after his two-week-plus work trip in Japan, the NBC/MSNBC national political correspondent admits he's struggling with jet lag. But the memories and time with his interactive "big board" half a world away were well worth it.
"I thought I had it all planned out to avoid it. I'd never dealt with it," Kornacki, 41, says of the fatigue and sleep disturbance once he returned to the U.S.
Another thing he'd "never dealt" with or expected? Fame.
Kornacki, who has worked at NBC and MSNBC since 2012, became a sensation among political junkies during the 2020 presidential election as audiences were drawn to him for his emphatic brand of analysis and stats about the candidates, counties and vote counting.
He also made the list of PEOPLE's Sexiest Men Alive ("I think that might've been where the real voter fraud was," he jokes).
Soon enough, Kornacki was asked to break down the numbers for athletes and countries as part of NBC's Olympics coverage.
"It was a really fun thing to be a part of. It's something I've known as a viewer and fan for years," he says. "The Olympics, obviously, is just a major event whether it's the summer or the winter. You always sit down and watch and see who the new star is."
Kornacki was tasked to talk numbers in Tokyo, even having a "Keeping Up with Kornacki" segment to explain the odds of Team USA's success in specific events.
"To actually be there, aid and to watch everybody at NBC put it together, I think was a fascinating thing to see it up close — and then to get to play a role," he recalls. "I mean the idea there was to try to illustrate some of the story lines with numbers and to try to provide maybe a piece of context, an angle, in terms of looking at one of the events."
He took hours out of his day to research the sports he was unfamiliar with. For women's gymnastics, it took approximately 10 hours for him to learn the ins and outs of the sport.
"I remember we did one looking at the Suni Lee in the all-around final, and we were just looking at where could she boost her scores from the qualifying round to the final if she was going to win the whole thing," Kornacki says, referencing Lee's chances of winning it all after Simone Biles withdrew.
"Then obviously, [Lee] went and she did that," he continues. "It was a fun thing to put those kinds of hits together. I thought it was just exciting to be part of something that big."
Viewers may associate Kornacki with politics and elections, but he is actually a big sports fan.
"I'm a diehard NFL fan," says the correspondent, who had a successful guest spot on Sunday Night Football and is scheduled to contribute to Super Bowl coverage in 2022. (He even covered Triple Crown horse racing in May.)
"To get a chance to be a part of it was just really cool. But also it seemed to me, once we looked out at what we could do with it, there was a real role there," Kornacki says about his NFL gig. "It wasn't just going to be like a gimmick where it's, 'Oh, hey look, it's that dork from the election standing in front of the board waving his arms around and ha, ha, ha.' "
"I'm not interested in doing anything that's a gimmick like that," he says. "If I'm going to do something, I want it to be something where we could try to provide something a little bit useful or interesting just in terms of numbers, in terms of data."
Kornacki, who recently earned an Emmy nomination for outstanding breaking news coverage, has become a friendly face and a trusted source of useful information among NBC audiences. "I feel very lucky that I've had these chances and they're kind of in areas that I've always had a real interest in and really, kind of, passion for," he says.
But Kornacki's most unlikely title might just be style influencer. (Thanks to him, Gap had a surge in sales of its khaki pants — a Kornacki favorite — after the election.)
"I didn't bring too many," he says of the five pairs of Gap khaki pants he packed for Tokyo. "Don't get the wrong idea, I consider myself hygienic. Yes, just knowing that there's laundry and everything available, I was just more, you know, dealing with lugging a bunch of stuff onto the airplane was stressing me out."
Kornacki admits he doesn't quite understand the phenomenon of his non-fashion fashion.
"The thing that surprised me the most since the election, is the gap between the thought I never put into this clothing stuff with the attention it's gotten. It's staggering," he says. "I don't quite get it because it's just like, honestly, for the reactions it got, I never would've of [expected it]."
Kornacki recalls one particular moment during the election coverage. "One of my producers was just saying, 'Well, somebody, some magazine or somebody called and they were asking to know what brand your pants are.' I said, 'What do you need to know my pants for?' "
His sense of style is just him being himself. "I don't want it to ever seem like a gimmick. I don't want people to think I'm just trying to play a character or something," he says. "I just always wore them and that's kind of it."
To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.