By Hiromu Namiki / Japan News Staff WriterYears of struggling to get a winning grip on her career pushed judoka Christa Deguchi to make a life-changing decision — switching from Japan to representing her father’s native Canada to pursue her dream of competing at the Olympics.
The new surroundings helped the 23-year-old get a strong grasp on one simple, but fundamental key to overcoming her struggles: getting in touch with the joy of judo.
It was something difficult for her to do under the Japanese flag, for which winning is an obligation as a member of the national team, regardless of age.
With that pressure off her shoulders, Deguchi, who competes in the women’s 57-kilogram division, had a breakthrough 2018. She won five international competitions, including the Paris Grand Slam in February. She made her debut at the World Championships in Baku in September and took home the bronze medal.
“It was an extremely fulfilling year,” said Deguchi, the child of a Japanese mother and a father from Winnipeg, Canada. “I took part in so many international competitions and built up a lot of experience.”
It seems Deguchi’s decision has paid off, and she has now clearly set her sights on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“The Canadian judo environment was relaxed and free,” said Deguchi, who was born and raised in Japan. “It suited me.”
Deguchi was born in Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture, and started judo at age 3. Her idol was Ryoko Tani, who won five Olympic medals in the women’s 48-kilogram division, a haul that included back-to-back gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Games and the 2004 Athens Games.
Admiring Tani, who boasted nationwide popularity with the nickname “Yawara-chan,” the dream of competing at the Olympics was planted in the young Deguchi’s mind.
Deguchi steadily crafted her skills, winning the 52-kilogram division at the inter-high school championships in her first year at high school.
However, she hit a wall after leaving her hometown to attend Yamanashi Gakuin University. In her first two years, she was unable to win any title at collegiate tournaments, and consistently came up short of reaching the finals at any of the top-level national tournaments.
In her third year at Yamanashi Gakuin, she suffered a shocking second-round exit at the Kodokan Cup.
Deguchi thought at the time: “If things go on like this, it’ll be difficult to win in Japan. The Olympics are way out of reach.”
Deguchi felt she was in a long tunnel. She felt the need to change something to take a step forward.
‘What is your goal?’
Deguchi initially received an invitation to join the Canadian squad when she was a high school student. She declined the offer because she couldn’t fathom representing a country other than Japan at the time.
A second offer came in her way during her third year at Yamanashi Gakuin, when she was in the midst of her prolonged slump. And this time, she gave it serious consideration. She felt the offer was a way for her to boost her opportunities as a judoka.
The final decision, however, was not an easy one to make. It would certainly involve risk, and Deguchi considered the backlash she might endure.
“I thought people would think I was betraying Japan. To be honest, I myself thought it might be a betrayal,” she admitted.
She consulted with her former coach at a judo school in Nagano Prefecture. He posed one simple question to her: “What’s your ultimate goal?”
The question made Deguchi realize her ambition. “My ultimate goal is to win an Olympic title. To achieve it, I first have to make it to the Games.”
That sparked Deguchi to reach a decision.
“There are various paths to achieving one’s goal. I should take my own route.”
After finishing necessary arrangements, Deguchi visited Canada in the summer of 2017 to take part in a Canadian team training camp.
Deguchi grew up in Japanese judo’s strict, ascetic culture that places importance on seniority, so she was shocked to see the independent environment in which Canadian team members worked.
“They wore makeup during practice, something that was unthinkable in Japan. One of them even wore pierced earrings,” Deguchi said. The coaches’ attitudes toward athletes were also different. “Coaches didn’t scold at athletes, instead they made suggestions.”
Deguchi initially experienced stress from the judo cultural differences, but soon she realized an important thing about Canadian judoka. “I was impressed with their affection for judo. Because they are less restricted, they all love it.”
Deguchi came to this realization because judo had in part been an obligation for her.
“When I represented Japan, winning was taken for granted. I was always thinking, ‘What am I going to do if I lose?’”
She had a memorable experience at the World Championships last year. After losing in the semifinals, she won the third-place match to claim the bronze medal. However, she left the mat with feelings of disappointment because of missing out on the gold.
She then saw something that was totally unexpected — her coach was bursting with joy.
“She was so happy that I started to think, ‘Why am I dissatisfied about being third best in the world?” Deguchi recalled.
Such experiences with the Canadian team have changed the young judoka’s mind-set.
“Now I feel that there is someone who feels happy about me. That gives me motivation to carry on.”
Tough competitions ahead
Deguchi realizes a tough road lies ahead of her this year, as the race for the Tokyo Olympics intensifies. Because of her results last year, foreign rivals will certainly do their homework on her.
“I need to acquire the skills to overcome their efforts to beat me,” Deguchi said.
Deguchi understands she was able to achieve good results last year partly because of an environment under less pressure. That will now change. Pressure will likely be on her.
However, Deguchi is determined to gain momentum. “My goal is to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. That is what I can do to give back to Canada for accepting me.”
To achieve her goal, Deguchi said she always keeps one thing in mind: enjoy the sport and do the best she can, no matter what the results.