Samurai Spirit

Canada’s first female judo champion,
Christa Deguchi, has her sights set on 2021 gold

Christa Deguchi is an unassuming world champion. Off the mat, she is quiet, polite and loves animals. But despite this serene exterior, she is a fierce competitor. She is the first Canadian woman to receive a medal at a judo world championship, having been awarded a bronze in the under 57kg category at the 2018 World Judo Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. Since then, she has gone from strength to strength.

After Deguchi followed this triumph by taking gold at the Judo Grand Slam in Ekaterinburg, Russia, in March last year, she became Canada’s first-ever judo world champion. Then she defeated the world’s number one — Japan’s Tsukasa Yoshida — to claim the under 57kg title in August at the World Championships in Tokyo. 

Born in the town of Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture, the 24-year-old showed potential from an early age, winning international titles and standing out as one of the most exciting talents in Japan. At the beginning of her career, she competed for the country of her birth, but her father being Canadian, she was eligible to represent Canada. This she has done since 2017. She currently lives and trains in Yamanashi Prefecture, but previously trained in Montréal, at the Judo Canada National Training Centre. 

Deguchi is a strong contender for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and considering her background, that competition will be most meaningful for her. To learn more about her background, the differences she sees between judo in Canada and Japan, as well as the effects that the Covid-19 crisis has had on her training regimen, The Canadian spoke with her on Skype.

Tell us about yourself, and how you started judo?

I took up judo when I was just three, and I’ve been practicing judo for more than 20 years. I first started training at the Seishinkan Dojo in Nagano. My grandmother was a hairdresser who counted a prominent local judo master among her regular clients. He came in to get his hair cut and scouted me. That is when my judo career started. My mother loves judo, so I still remember she was really happy to see me doing it. I used to love going to the dojo as a child, making new friends and playing with them there. I still live and train in Japan, overseeing my own schedule with the help of my former university [Yamanashi Gakuin University] coaches.


What is your impression of Canada? 

Canada is my father’s home country, so I used to visit my grandmother there when I was a child, and still remember playing in the snow. Because I grew up in Japan, at first I felt some cultural differences when I was in Canada. Judo, of course, is not a sport that many Canadians think about. While judo is part of the culture in Japan, in Canada it is a foreign sport, even though people there love it and have respect for Japanese culture.

My father is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and my mother is from Nagano. She used to live in the United States, where she learned English. My father teaches English at a Japanese junior high school. When I was a child, I spoke English only with my father. So it took me a while to get used to speaking and communicating in English with my coaches and teammates in Canada.

They are all in Montréal, which is one of the most diverse cities in the world. You can walk from one neighbourhood to another and feel as though you are in a different city. I think that Montréal has a lot to offer everyone. Whoever you are and wherever you come from, the people will welcome you in a very warm and friendly way; they are very open-minded. My coaches and teammates are always cheering for me, and that makes me even more competitive.

My goal is to hold up a gold medal for Canada in Tokyo next year.

What is your impression of judo in Canada?

At first, I had to get used to the Canadian judo culture. Having grown up in Japanese judo’s strict, ascetic culture, which places importance on seniority, I still remember being surprised to see the free and easy environment in which Canadian team members practiced. For instance, my teammates wear makeup and earrings during practice, which would be unthinkable in Japan.

I find the attitude of Canadian coaches toward us are also very different. They don’t scold us but, instead, make suggestions. Initially, I sometimes felt stressed because of the cultural differences, but soon realized the importance of judo in Canada. I was impressed by my coaches and teammates’ love of the sport, and their out-going approach. I was surprised because, in a way, I had felt obliged to take it up. And when I represented Judo Japan, winning was a must. I remember always thinking, “What am I going to do if I lose?”

After losing in the semifinals at the World Championships in Baku, I won the third-place match to claim the bronze medal. I left the mat with feelings of disappointment because I had missed out on the gold, yet after the game, my coach was happy to see me — something I had not expected. That made me think, “Why am I not satisfied with being the third-best judoka [judo practitioner] in the world?”

Experiences such as those with Team Canada have changed my mindset. Now I feel much happier, knowing that there are people who are happy with me as I am. That gives me the motivation to keep going.

As you train in attacking and defending, you refine your body and soul

What inspired you to compete for Canada?

In 2017, I switched to representing Canada, instead of the country where I was born and raised. Actually, I was first contacted by Team Canada in 2012 before I started competing for Japan. But at that time, I chose to represent Japan.

Team Canada contacted me a few times over the years, and finally I decided to switch. As countries are limited to one athlete per weight category in the most important competitions, I was well aware that Team Canada gave me the best chance of consistently making the squad. It was a big decision for me, but I am proud to be a pioneer for judo in Canada. The most important thing that I have learned from Team Canada is this: I should enjoy judo and do the best I can, no matter what the results.

I will keep this in mind as I reach for my dream — winning the gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games as a Canadian national. This is what I can do to give back to Canada for having accepted me.


What do you like about judo in Japan?

Judo in Japan is part of the culture and a popular sport for children. It is often regarded as an important part of their moral education. Judo places great emphasis on ethics and morality in its training. It is a path to the most effective use of both physical and spiritual strength. As you train in attacking and defending, you refine your body and soul; this helps you make the spiritual essence of judo a part of your very being. It is very difficult for Canadian judoka to fully understand this culture. However, I believe it is possible to teach them.

For example, Georges St-Pierre, who is one of the athletes I most look up to, respects this culture. St-Pierre, from Québec, is one of the greatest mixed martial arts competitors of all time and a karate black belt. He showed people in Canada what bushido (the way of the warrior) really means at many of his matches. The stronger you become, the more the spirit and attitude of judo must be maintained. Those who practice judo should always consider whether their conduct toward others is creating any sense of disharmony. The spirit of judo is rooted in having respect for others, and not creating tension between people. I would be truly happy if people in Canada were to share in the basic judo tradition: starting with a bow and ending with a bow. Judo is more than just a sport, and this is very, very important.

Has the Covid-19 situation disrupted your momentum?

After winning the recent competition [the Paris Grand Slam in February], I was confident that I was on the right track. Now I am trying to address my weak points. I’m now based in Yamanashi Prefecture, where the only shops open are those considered essential, such as supermarkets and pharmacies. We are strongly urged to remain indoors unless it is necessary to go out. The last time I was able to practice judo was about a month ago. I haven’t gone this long without wearing my judo uniform for a very long time.

Right now, our training center is closed, along with all dojos and gyms, making it impossible to practice. These conditions have made training very different to that under normal circumstances. But I am taking a positive attitude and trying to establish some structure in my days. I’m asking my coaches in Canada for advice, and sticking to a routine of one or two physical training sessions per day. Body weight training and jogging are two things I can do right now. I believe in myself and I know I can be stronger in a year.

In addition, I have decided to spend this time investigating topics that could complement my judo, but which I never had time to dive into before. Reading books and watching videos on nutrition and fitness, for example, are some of the things that fill my days. Other than that, I am relaxing and managing to stay calm about the current situation by reminding myself that it is only temporary. I love animals, so when I am at home, I often play with my cats, Tuna and Mayo. I have spent countless hours laughing the day’s stress away while watching my cats jumping and playing around.

What are your thoughts about the Olympics being postponed?

Prior to the lockdown, I was confident in my ability to be ready in time for Tokyo 2020. But, given the disruption to my training that Covid-19 is causing, I would have needed more time to fully restore the level of physical strength, conditioning and quality of judo needed to do well. However, the postponement of the Games until 2021 will give me the necessary time to recover from this unfortunate disruption. Judo is my life. I cannot imagine it without judo — or what I would be doing if I were not a judoka today. I aim to live up to the spirit of bushido. My goal is to hold up a gold medal for Canada in Tokyo next year.

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