Natochenny, a Junior Olympic bronze medalist in rhythmic gymnastics turned voice actress, never envisioned herself so committed to voice acting. After attending acting school at age 12, she tried her hand at indie films and acting on camera. But she was a big Pokémon fan at the height of the first games’ popularity in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and was closely familiar with the anime series. The allure of voicing the show’s main character was just too strong to ignore.
“It was really nerve-racking,” Natochenny said. “I never thought about this as something that would define my career.”
Natochenny, who replaced Ash Ketchum’s original voice actress Veronica Taylor from Season 9 onward, would physically go into the recording studio for another 17 years to voice the character — even during the pandemic — as showrunners feared that scripts may be leaked if sent outside their offices. The show always recorded the Japanese dub multiple episodes ahead of the English dub. Natochenny would enter the booth, and look simultaneously at her script and a screen showing the episode she was recording for. At first, her goal was simply to emulate her predecessor to the best of her ability while ensuring the timing of her lines matched the amount of time the character’s mouth was moving. Eventually, she became comfortable enough in the role to make the character her own.
Natochenny would go on to voice other roles too. On Pokémon, she also played Ash’s mom, Delia Ketchum, as well as several Pokémon, including Chansey, Misdreavus and Buneary. Her career grew outside of the show as well. She voiced Marian in “Robin Hood: Mischief in Sherwood,” Aura in “Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V,” and Igor in “44 Cats,” to name just a few roles.
On Nov. 11, 2022, Natochenny learned at the same time as the rest of the world that the character she portrayed for almost two decades had finally won his first World Championship. She was attending Grand Rapids Comic-Con when the episode aired in Japan, and she saw tweets celebrating Ash’s win exploded across her feed.
“I made a video saying like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’” Natochenny said. “And then, over the course of the day, everyone started messaging me, ‘Hey, what do you think’s going to happen?’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean what’s gonna happen? He’s going to make another season!’
“It didn’t occur to me that this was the end.”
It’s been an extraordinary privilege to have been the English voice of Ash Ketchum for what will be 17 years. No matter what lies beyond his final chapter, he’ll live forever in the hearts of many generations to come. I’ll keep him present for all of us in every way I can. ❤️ pic.twitter.com/UZxPO4xD6E
— Sarah Natochenny (@sarahnatochenny) December 16, 2022
A month later, the show announced that the series would move away from Ash Ketchum and star a new protagonist. The announcement was an emotional one for Natochenny, but now, she’s looking to the future.
“Voice acting kind of consumed my career,” she said. “I have projects that I’ve wanted to do that I haven’t really been able to hit the gas on because I’ve been comfortable in this role.”
Among those projects is “Unicorn Boy,” a film starring Patton Oswalt that’s set to premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Natochenny plays Prince Purpleton in the film). She’s also working on an animated series based on characters her mother — a Broadway violinist — sketched during the pandemic.
Natochenny also wants to get into writing, penning a live-action feature that follows a voice actress as she tanks her life after losing her job. “It’s going to be very dark and very funny,” she said. “It’s not what I’m going to do, but if I did [tank my life], this is what it would look like.”
Natochenny believes voice acting will always play some part in her career, though, and she’s fond of her time as Ash Ketchum. If it were up to her, she admitted, she would love to continue working on the show.
“I would love to stick with Pokémon if they’ll have me in other roles,” she said. “And if not, this is also okay. It’s okay to move on. I’m sad. I’m excited. I’m emotionally ready for this to end.”
Will Pokémon be able to reach the same heights of popularity it used to enjoy with Ash at the helm? That remains to be seen. But for Natochenny, her outlook on her future remains optimistic, in large part due to a familiar quote.
“My message to the fans? ‘Be the very best like no one ever was.’ And when you’re in doubt, ask yourself: ‘What would Ash Ketchum do?’”