Christa Deguchi: The cat-loving world champ that is transforming judo in Canada 

The 57kg judo world champion's change of allegiances from Japan to Canada ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics provided a major culture shock, but has ignited a great new rivalry for the sport.
By Andrew Binner

Judo has rarely featured on the list of most followed sports by Canadians at an Olympic Games, but that is about to change thanks to Christa Deguchi.

Three years ago, the Nagano-born talent switched allegiances from Japan, to that of her father Canada. After taking out the 57kg world title in 2019, she has now given her adopted nation a realistic chance of winning its first judo Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games in 2021.

The 24-year-old had entertained the idea of switching earlier in her career, but instead waited.

"Canada first contacted me when I was in high school," Deguchi told Tokyo2020.org.

"I was on Team Japan at the time and didn't think I was going to change countries."

“Judo, of course, is not a sport that many Canadians think about."

But Deguchi reversed her decision after her long-term coach advised her to compete for the nation which will give the best chance of competing at the Olympics.

Given that Japan is comfortably the most dominant nation in Olympic judo history, with a staggering 39 gold medals, her mind was made up. Shortly before her 22nd birthday - the legal age in Japan to change citizenship for those with dual nationalities - Canada’s red maple leaf replaced the red sun on her judogi.

“Because I grew up in Japan, at first I felt some cultural differences when I was in Canada,” she told The Canadian. “Judo, of course, is not a sport that many Canadians think about.

“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.”

The only snag was that International Judo Federation rules prevent athletes from competing internationally for three years after switching countries.

However, Deguchi had not competed for Japan for some while, meaning her time on the sidelines was negligible. The change in mindset between the two countries was palpable from the start.

“After losing in the semi-finals 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."

Deguchi becoming world champion

Any doubts that arose as a result of her switch were duly squashed when Deguchi shocked the world to win two Paris Grand Slams, as well as the 2019 world championships in Tokyo.

The icing on the cake came in defeating her former Japan teammate Tsukasa Yoshida in the world champs final.

"Winning gold for Canada was a special moment and a high point in my career," Deguchi said after becoming the nation's first judo world champion.

"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."

Top-seeded Yoshida was understandably frustrated at her defeats to Deguchi both in a Grand Slam and at the worlds, promising afterwards that, ‘If I meet her at the finals at Tokyo 2020, I will win.’

Given Deguchi’s heritage and the pair’s history, what a showdown that would be.

Christa Deguchi (blue) throws Tsukasa Yoshida (white) to win in the Women's -57kg final of the 2019 World Judo Championships in Tokyo, Japan.

Olympic qualification for Canada

But before judo [and Canadian] fans get too excited, Deguchi still has to secure her berth at the Olympics.

With Canadian compatriot Jessica Klimkait currently sitting one place below Deguchi in the world rankings at No. 2, qualification is anything but a foregone conclusion.

"I want to fight a few times before the Games and I still have to compete against a team-mate in Canada in a play-off to secure the Olympic spot," she continued.

"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."

One individual following her progress with particular interest is Nicolas Gill - currently Canada’s most decorated judoka with silver and bronze Olympic medals, and the nation’s closing flag-bearer at the 2004 Athens Games.

"Judo in Japan is part of the culture. Judo in Canada is a foreign sport," he told CNN. "But Canada loves athletes that succeed at the Olympics and loves great personal stories. So all the ingredients are in place to write a great story in Tokyo."

Eccentric character

Despite Deguchi’s uncompromising character on the mat, she cuts a decidedly fun and relaxed persona online.

Her glittering judo career clearly plays a support role on her Instagram feed to videos and photos of her animals. She loves animals. Offerings range from her cats playing, to bathing her bird and, of course, her favourite koala mug.

During COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown, the 1.6m fighter put the period of isolation to good use, while also spending time with her favourite companions.

“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," she said.

“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’s next?

Deguchi’s journey thus far has all the makings of a storybook ending. Overcoming former teammates to win Canada’s first Olympic gold medal, in front of family and friends in the country of her birth.

For now, her focus will be solely on regaining match fitness and qualifying her place at the Games. But regardless of what happens in 2021, there is no doubting that Deguchi has ensured that judo is here to stay in her new homeland.