The athlete has switched from Team Japan to Team Canada to acknowledge her roots and to compete in the Olympics
World no 1 judoka Christa Deguchi knew that she was taking a risk when she switched allegiances from Japan to Canada.
“It was a hard decision but it has put me on the right track for an Olympic spot,” she said.
The 24-year old judoka - who was born in Nagano to a Japanese mother and a Canadian father - knew that if she wanted to be in the running for Tokyo 2020, her best chance was wearing the colours of Canada than Team Japan, where a spot in the squad is less likely to be guaranteed.
“Canada first contacted me when I was in high school. I was on Team Japan at the time and didn’t think I was going to change countries. In 2017, they contacted me again."
She struggled with her decision but her sensei - the same one who had been training her since she was three-years-old - advised her to choose the country that would take her closer to the Olympics.
"After talking with family, coaches and friends, I decided to make the switch,” she told Tokyo 2020.
So in 2017 and shortly before her 22nd birthday - the legal age in Japan to choose a citizenship for those with dual nationalities - she announced her decision to represent Team Canada and formally dropped out of the Japanese national team.
However, her road to Tokyo 2020 was fraught with some challenges.
Deguchi had to be sidelined and unable to compete before she could get international clearance to compete for Canada. It is a requirement of the International Judo Federation for dual-nationality athletes not to compete for three years after switching countries.
“I was fortunate. I didn’t compete for Japan for a few years [but] that matched up with the time needed for Team Japan to release me so I could compete for Canada,” she said.
Now representing Canada, this naturally pits her against the top judokas in the world, some of whom are her former Japanese teammates.
As a full-fledged Canadian judoka, Deguchi is enjoying a remarkable career on the international circuit winning her first major competition and first bronze medal in the 2018 World Championships.
The following year was extra special. With her father by her side all throughout the competition, Deguchi made history in the 2019 World Championships by becoming Canada’s first ever judo world champion, beating her former Japanese teammate YOSHIDA Tsukasa for the -57kg title.
It was a victory witnessed by the Japanese audience in the famed martial arts venue of the Nippon Budokan and her father could not be any prouder of her accomplishment and for her decision to represent Canada.
“Winning gold for Canada was a special moment and a high point in my career. I try not to think about the details of the match or what results I need to get. I try to keep my mind as blank as possible and just focus on my fight and how I am going to throw my opponent,” Deguchi said.
Deguchi's winning streak is likely to continue.
Earlier this year and before countries went into lockdown, Deguchi returned to the international stage to seal her fourth title in one of her favourite events, the Paris Grand Slam – where she beat former 2017 world champion Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia.
Dominating the event for three years in a row, Deguchi said: “I don’t know why, but for some reason, there is something about Paris! I really enjoy fighting there and overall the atmosphere is amazing. The crowd’s energy really helps me during the tournament.”
For the love of cats and judo
Even though Deguchi is now representing Canada, she has not altogether turned her back on Japan, especially since she started judo in the country when she was three-years-old, running around the Japanese dojo and playing with older kids.
Still based in Japan, Deguchi has moved to Yamanashi from Nagano, and is currently training in her university Yamanashi Gakuin although now, her routine had to change due to COVID-19.
"I have been lucky. I found a private gym to workout at and have increased my cardio training too."
"It’s been a big challenge to train by myself and sometimes limiting because I have no one to spot for me. So my trainers have altered my routines as best as they can to fit the situation."
Deguchi, who remains popular figure in Japan, also maintains a good relationship with her former Japanese teammates.
"We don’t get to meet as often as we did before but when we do, nothing has really changed. It’s really nice."
And for the meantime, her cats - Tuna and Mayo - keep her company during this strange time of social distancing and is helping her stay mentally strong.
"Yes, they have been keeping me company during the quarantine. Playing with them, spending time with them helps me to relax."
She calls them her 'medicine'.
But even in her downtime with her cats, Deguchi misses judo and can't wait to get back to the real thing to continue her preparations for Tokyo 2020.
With judo set to return to the Nippon Budokan, where it made its debut at Tokyo 1964, it will be the biggest stage for the Canadian athlete to showcase her mastery of judo - a sport she believes embodies the Olympic spirit and values.
And Deguchi sums it all up.
"For me, the biggest thing in Judo is showing respect to your opponents regardless of whether you win or lose."
"I try to control my emotions before, during and after the matches out of respect to my opponents.
"They too have worked hard to get to their position and that deserves respect."
Her rivalry at Tokyo 2020
If Deguchi qualifies for the Games, her rivalry with Japan's YOSHIDA Tsukasa is something people will be eager to see at Tokyo 2020.
The two have been battling it out in the mat since high school ever since Deguchi defeated Yoshida in the All Japan Junior Championships.
Both have faced each other in the international stage - and in each instance, showing off who is a better judoka.
When Yoshida won gold at the 2018 World Championships, Deguchi snatched it away from her the following year. This means Deguchi now has 2-1 win over the Japanese star, who now wants a rematch next year.
"If I meet her at the finals at Tokyo 2020, I will win," Yoshida said after the World Championships.
However, Yoshida has already qualified for the Games, as Deguchi lays out her plan to book her ticket to Tokyo 2020.
“I want to fight a few times before the Games and I still have to compete against a teammate in Canada in a play off to secure the Olympic spot,” Deguchi said.
But Deguchi sees everyone as her rivals, not just Yoshida, especially in a highly contested category for female judokas.
"Everyone in the -57kg category is a potential rival. It’s the most competitive category in women’s judo."
“Of course my goal is to win Canada’s first ever judo gold medal but I don’t think I am the favourite. The -57kg category is one of the toughest divisions in judo. I will have to be at my best to accomplish my goal.”
While Japan still has the unparalleled dominance in judo and has the upper hand having won 39 Olympic golds, Deguchi is in prime position to make history for Canada.