When the sport of judo returned to its historic home of Japan for the 2010 world championships, a Canadian woman was on hand there to welcome competitors.
Kelita Zupancic, the 21-year-old fighter from Whitby, Ont., got the rare compliment of an invitation to spend several months training in Japan with the highly regarded Komatsu women’s team.
It was more than an honour, she said in an interview. It was a call to duty to bring Canada into the inner circle of the sport.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Zupancic, who is the front runner to represent Canadian women in the 70-kilogram class at the Olympics. “I was being paid to train with the best I couldn’t say no.” She said she would have gone for free.
Zupancic gave up hockey (she played at the Triple-A level until 13) to follow her judo calling. She spends every day she can in Canada, learning on the judo mat from national coach and two-time Olympic medalist Nicolas Gill. But she learned valuable lessons in style, technique and hard work from the sport’s originators in Japan.
“The Japanese are very secretive in their ways of training and I got to go there and see what they do,” she said. Zupancic said her skin became raw from the daily workouts under Japanese mentorship, four hours of tough combat and a running drill.
“Not that their way of training is best for me – my style is different from the Japanese style of judo. But they exposed me to what they do. It educated me. You can become Canadian champion ... then you train in Japan and find out how really hard they work,” Zupancic said.
A determined woman, Zupancic is the daughter of a black-belt, businessman father, Eddie, and restaurateur mother, Annette, “who’s always telling me I got my sports skill from my father but my drive from her. ... They both influenced my career. My mother opened one restaurant when I left home for the world championship. She’ll open another when I make it to the Olympics.”
She has three younger hockey-playing brothers, Anton, Ryan and Andrew, all six feet tall. Yet Kelita lays claim to the reputation of being the best fighter among the siblings.
“I’m a very determined girl,” said the judoka.
She can wear the proof. Zupancic has won Pan American gold and World Cup medals and regularly earns a place in the top five world-class competitors at tournaments. When Zupancic gets to the London Olympics this summer, it will be the culmination of training on both sides of the Pacific and a lifelong ambition. Make that a lifelong obsession.
When she was in the first grade in Whitby, she made a drawing of herself in which she was on an Olympic podium.
“My whole life has been dedicated to this one moment. It means everything. I always dreamed of going to the Games. To be an Olympic athlete is an honour, a privilege. They’re so respected. This is my dream. I have to do this. ...
“I drew the picture. Judo was the sport I enjoyed doing most as a little kid. I calculated when my first Games would be and, surely enough, 2012 was the Games to be at. And I’m here.”
Komatsu is one of Japan’s top makers of construction equipment and working with its women’s team gave Zupancic “some insight into what players on top of the world are doing,” she said.
Zupancic trained in Canada under her father, a fourth-degree black belt, national coach Gill, who had won Olympic medals – “he’s so inspiring” – and Montreal-based Hiroshi Nakamura, one of Canada’s senior senseis in the sport. But what made Japan superior?
Nakamura’s connections helped bring her to the attention of Komatsu leaders. She spent three weeks with them in Japan, early in 2010, then won a series of medals in world-class events in Europe to earn an invitation to camp. Kazuhiko Tokuno is the national female coach based at Komatsu and national coach Yoshiyuki Matsuoka coaches the company’s private club team.