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Jessica Klimkai against Kaja Kajzer of Slovenia at the Nippon Budokan at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Jessica Klimkait experienced the most gut-wrenching moment of her judo career on Monday night in Tokyo, then composed herself in time to claim an historic bronze medal less than an hour later.

But it wasn’t the prize she came for.

The world champion judoka from Whitby, Ont., entered the Olympics ranked No. 1 in the under-57-kilogram class and a favourite for Olympic gold. She seemed well on her way until she lost a crushing semi-final to Sarah-Léonie Cysique of France by picking up a costly penalty that disqualified her from the fight.

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Klimkait was only doing what makes her a winner – being the aggressor. She went to attack Cysique during extra time – known as golden score – but she didn’t get the right grip. The referee ruled it a false attack, which was her third and final penalty.

She had little time to push aside the heartbreak and beat Slovenia’s Kaja Kajzer to claim bronze, Canada’s fourth overall medal of the Olympics.

“The highest step on the podium would have been preferred,” Klimkait said. “But I know this is the first Olympic medal for women’s judo in Canada and I’m happy that it’s me.”

Jessica Klimkait holds her judo bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Klimkait’s road to the Tokyo Olympics was a fascinating one. She had to conquer one of the world’s top judokas just to claim her spot on Canada’s team – another athlete wearing the Maple Leaf.

In 2017, a Japanese judoka named Christa Deguchi – born in Nagano to a Japanese mother and a Canadian father – switched allegiances to compete for Canada. Only one athlete per weight class can compete for a country at the Olympics, and back then it may have appeared easier to earn Canada’s spot than one for Japan, a nation rich in judo talent.

Deguchi happened to compete in Klimkait’s under-57-kg weight class. At the time, Klimkait was just a young up-and-comer, but she still had an Olympic dream. Suddenly both women were seeking that one Olympic spot for the Tokyo Olympics.

Klimkait briefly considered putting on some extra weight to move to the under-63-kg weight class so maybe they could both compete in Tokyo. Ultimately, Klimkait dug in her heels, remained in her ideal weight class and fought for the spot.

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Deguchi kept living and training in Japan, but competed for Canada and she dominated internationally. It looked as if Klimkait’s chances were dwindling, and she had no choice but to elevate everything she was doing on and off the mats at the national training centre in Montreal.

In the years that followed, they became the world’s top two competitors in their weight class. Their rivalry became big news in the judo world. Still Deguchi won all six of their head-to-head meetings. As Olympic qualification neared, Judo Canada decided that if both women remained in the top eight, the spot for Tokyo should be awarded by a best-of-three fight-off.

For whomever won the Olympic spot, their federation made one thing very clear: a medal in Tokyo was expected.

Tokyo Olympics: Canada wins gold, sets records in the pool

When the COVID-19 pandemic halted the sports world, they had to put the fight-off on hold. The extra time helped Klimkait heal an injured knee. The federation eventually said they would instead give the spot to whomever finished best at June’s world championship in Budapest, where Deguchi would try to defend her 2019 title (Canada’s first in history).

The two seemed destined to meet in the final in Budapest but Deguchi suffered a shocking upset loss in the semi-finals there. Klimkait rocked over her competition and went on to claim her first world title along with Canada’s spot at the Olympics. For the biggest competition in their sport, Deguchi would have to stay home.

“I don’t think I would have had a fire under me to, to push as hard as I have the last two or three years, so I am at the end of day thankful for it but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a difficult journey,” Klimkait told The Globe and Mail last month. “It’s just a shame that for both of us can’t go.”

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So in Tokyo on Monday, it was Klimkait who got the Olympic opportunity inside Nippon Budokan, the iconic martial arts venue near the Imperial Palace originally built for the judo competition at the 1964 Tokyo Games. They competed in the Japanese sport where combatants grapple through intense four-minute fights to throw one another to the ground or put them into submission.

The Whitby native was seeded No. 1 and received a bye into the Round of 16. She marched onto the Olympic mats aggressively, coming at her opponents like a hurricane, striking and twisting them into submission. The speedy Canadian made very quick work of her first two challengers – beating both Bulgaria’s Ivelina Ilieva and Poland’s Julia Kowalczyk, by Ippon in under two minutes each.

After a long wait, the quick-footed Canadian tangled with Cysique from France in an intense, fast-paced semi-final that reached extra time. Their gruelling duel went on for seven minutes of grabbing and throwing. Cysique was being defensive, so Klimkait tried to make something happen.

“I could see that she was going with a defensive tactic and I’m a really offensive player, so the only solution I have is to attack. I was trying forward attacks, backward attacks. Obviously some weren’t as great as they could have been,” Klimkait said. “I would have liked the fight to continue but the ref made the decision to give me the final penalty.”

Canada’s Jessica Klimkait after being disqualified from the judo semi-final match on Monday.

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Then, she said, she sulked. She talked to her coach, who pressed her to completely erase it from her mind.

“It was hard to put that semi-final behind me,” Klimkait said. “But I realized that if I didn’t I might sabotage my chances of being on the podium at all. … I still wanted to feel that pride even if it wasn’t gold.”

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Cysique took silver in the event final, losing to the surprising Nora Gjakova from Kosovo.

Canada nearly had another bronze in the sport, but Montreal’s Arthur Margelidon lost his bronze medal match in the men’s under-73-kg class to Tsogtbaatar Tsend-Ochir of Mongolia.

There are two bronze medal contests in judo, and Japan’s Yoshida Tsukasa earned the other one in women’s under-57-kg. Tsukasa stood next to Klimkait on the podium to receive it – the two women many predicted would grapple for gold inside the Japanese house of judo. That will have to wait for another day.


visual guide

Olympic judo explained

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

AUGUST

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Judo means the ‘gentle way’, but it is a full-on combat sport in which a false move or the slightest loss of concentration can result in defeat.

The sport originated in Japan in the late 19th century. Judo was introduced as an Olympic sport for men at the Tokyo 1964 Games. Women's events were added to the Olympic programme at Barcelona 1992. The Mixed Team event will make its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Athletes, known as judoka, wear white or blue judo uniforms

Judo comprises 100 techniques:

68 nagewaza or throwing techniques

32 katamewaza or grappling techniques

The contest is won when:

Competitor scores an ippon or two waza-ari

An opponent is disqualified

An opponent cannot continue and gives up

WEIGHT CLASSES/EVENTS

Men | 7

Women | 7

Mixed team | 1

COMPETITION AREA

18 m

10 m

Safety area

SCORING

The objective is to throw or takedown an opponent to the ground, subdue them with a pinning hold, or force them to submit with a joint lock or a choke. Two waza-ari in one match is the equivalent of ippon. The contest ends after ippon is scored. Contests last 4 minutes.

Osaekomi: Pinning technique

Judge declares osaekomi or a pin has been established when a judoka being held is controlled by the opponent

Ippon: Full point

For a successful throw performed with control and power, or for osaekomi that lasts over 20 seconds

Waza-ari: Half point

For a controlled throw which lacks the quality of an ippon, or for osaekomi that lasts over 10 seconds

SOURCE: REUTERS

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

AUGUST

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Judo means the ‘gentle way’, but it is a full-on combat sport in which a false move or the slightest loss of concentration can result in defeat.

The sport originated in Japan in the late 19th century. Judo was introduced as an Olympic sport for men at the Tokyo 1964 Games. Women's events were added to the Olympic programme at Barcelona 1992. The Mixed Team event will make its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Athletes, known as judoka, wear white or blue judo uniforms

Judo comprises 100 techniques:

68 nagewaza or throwing techniques

32 katamewaza or grappling techniques

The contest is won when:

Competitor scores an ippon or two waza-ari

An opponent is disqualified

An opponent cannot continue and gives up

WEIGHT CLASSES/EVENTS

Men | 7

Women | 7

Mixed team | 1

COMPETITION AREA

18 m

10 m

Safety area

SCORING

The objective is to throw or takedown an opponent to the ground, subdue them with a pinning hold, or force them to submit with a joint lock or a choke. Two waza-ari in one match is the equivalent of ippon. The contest ends after ippon is scored. Contests last 4 minutes.

Osaekomi: Pinning technique

Judge declares osaekomi or a pin has been established when a judoka being held is controlled by the opponent

Ippon: Full point

For a successful throw performed with control and power, or for osaekomi that lasts over 20 seconds

Waza-ari: Half point

For a controlled throw which lacks the quality of an ippon, or for osaekomi that lasts over 10 seconds

SOURCE: REUTERS

JULY

AUGUST

SCHEDULE

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Qualification

Medal

Judo means the ‘gentle way’, but it is a full-on combat sport in which a false move or the slightest loss of concentration can result in defeat.

The sport originated in Japan in the late 19th century. Judo was introduced as an Olympic sport for men at the Tokyo 1964 Games. Women's events were added to the Olympic programme at Barcelona 1992. The Mixed Team event will make its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

WEIGHT CLASSES/EVENTS

Men | 7

Women | 7

Mixed Team | 1

Competition

area

18 m

10 m

Safety area

Athletes, known as judoka, wear white or blue judo uniforms

SCORING

The objective is to throw or takedown an opponent to the ground, subdue them with a pinning hold, or force them to submit with a joint lock or a choke. Two waza-ari in one match is the equivalent of ippon. The contest ends after ippon is scored. Contests last 4 minutes.

Osaekomi: Pinning technique

Judge declares osaekomi or a pin has been established when a judoka being held is controlled by the opponent

Waza-ari: Half point

For a controlled throw which lacks the quality of an ippon, or for osaekomi that lasts over 10 seconds

Judo comprises 100 techniques:

68 nagewaza or throwing techniques

32 katamewaza or grappling techniques

The contest is won when:

Competitor scores an ippon or

two waza-ari

An opponent is disqualified

An opponent cannot continue

and gives up

Ippon: Full point

For a successful throw performed with control and power, or for osaekomi that lasts over 20 seconds

SOURCE: REUTERS


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