‘Pokémon’ voice actor Sarah Natochenny discusses 17 years as Ash Ketchum ahead of Des Moines Con 2023

Des Moines Con

Hy-Vee Hall, Des Moines, June 3-4, $10-99

Sarah Natochenny, the voice of Ash Ketchum -- courtesy of Deraney PR
Sarah Natochenny, the voice of Ash Ketchum — courtesy of Deraney PR

Ash Ketchum has been to at least eight different regions in the world of Pokémon since his adventures began, but June marks the first time Sarah Natochenny — Ash’s English voice actor of the past 17 years — will be in Des Moines.

It’s a visit she inadvertently prepared for two decades ago.

“I wrote a report on the state of Iowa in the 5th grade and know that your state stone is the geode,” Natochenny, 35, told Little Village via email on May 2. “I’m very excited to see this geode.”

She’ll be a guest at Des Moines Con, an annual celebration of pop culture and the people who make it happen. The first instance of Des Moines Con was held last year and drew thousands with names like animator Tom Cook (He-Man, Super Friends), comedian Kel Mitchell (Good Burger, Kenan & Kel) and voice actor Emily Neves (My Hero Academia, Akame ga Kill!).

According to Ben Penrod — the president of Nerd Street LLC, the organization that runs Des Moines Con — some 10,000 people are expected at this year’s event, 2,000 more than the event’s 2022 debut.

“This year, we know that we have the support of the fan community in Iowa and we’re coming back with even more celebrity guests because we know it will be great, and fans have been responding very well so far,” Penrod said in an email. “For the future, we’ve booked our dates for 2024 already, we’re definitely going to grow even more, and we are in the early stages of planning what that looks like, but the general idea is that as a con grows larger, we can add more to it that makes it more fun for everyone.”

Natochenny is just one of the celebrity guests coming to this year’s event. Names like Tom Kenny — who voices the titular invertebrate in Spongebob Squarepants — and Troy Baker — who originated the role of Joel in The Last of Us video game — represent just a few of the voice actors in this year’s Des Moines Con roster.

Artist Alley at Des Moines Con on Saturday, May 21, 2022. -Lily DeTaeye/Little Village

“Voice actors are actors. We have the benefit of choosing to hide behind our animated counterparts, but we absolutely deserve to know that we have fans out these, cheering for us at home,” Natochenny said. “I never knew until I started coming out to do conventions like Des Moines Con. It’s been amazing to get a round of applause after 17 years in a booth by myself.”

It was announced in December that the Pokémon anime is bringing 10-year-old Ash Ketchum’s story to a close as part of its latest season. Future episodes are said to focus on characters named Liko and Roy.

“The final episodes haven’t aired in English and I’m not yet done recording!” Natochenny said. “We have no information regarding Ash showing up in the future. Stay tuned for more Ash Ketchum-led episodes coming to Netflix!”

As Natochenny pointed out, it’s unclear what, if any, role Ash or herself might have in the future of the show. Whatever comes next, this last set of episodes marks the end of an era.

Though Pokémon aired its first episode in the United States in 1998, Natochenny didn’t step into the role of Ash Ketchum until 2006. Ash’s original English voice actor, Veronica Taylor, left after the first eight seasons and five theatrically-released films. Since then, Natochenny’s been able to put her own spin on the character across more than 800 episodes. She also lent her voice to 30 side characters, including Ash’s mother Delia and a range of Pokémon.

When Natochenny got the part, she was 18 years old, meaning she’d already been growing up with Pokémon before the property went on to define her adult life.

“I remember watching the show and running to talk to classmates about it,” she said, recalling her earliest Pokémon memories. “They were all collecting Pokémon cards … my parents only got me one blister pack. Its whereabouts are currently unknown.”

Natochenny has pointed out many times how much she and Ash Ketchum’s lives have overlapped. They were born in the same year, 1987, and many of their biggest achievements have come close together. When Ash won the Orange League in 1999, Natochenny won a bronze medal at the Junior Olympics. When Ash won the Alola League in 2019, the same year Natochenny won a Voice Arts Award.

This year Natochenny defeated Stephen Colbert for an Audience Webby Award — Ash, meanwhile, won the Pokémon World Championship within the anime.

“[F]or me personally, as an actor … winning the world championship is Ash’s finest moment. I think Ash’s Japanese voice actor Rica Matsumoto said she had a similar experience — I cried on and off through that whole session,” she said. “It’s Ash’s happiest moment, and I’m sobbing as I get through it. I’m grateful for that experience.”

Of course, Natochenny’s own journey as an actor has taken her beyond the world of Pokémon. She’s done voice work large and small across properties like Yu-gi-oh and Winx and the Grand Theft Auto series.

“I play the voice of Yuzuha in Tokyo Revengers season 2 now on Hulu!” Natochenny noted regarding current projects. “Otherwise I’m focusing on my own work at the moment — a live action feature about a voice actor who loses a precious role after 20 years.”

As for what Natochenny imagines for Ash after, the answer is simple: “I imagine him continuing down his path to becoming a Pokémon Master.”

Standard Weekend Passes for Des Moines Con are $40. More information can be found at