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Sergio Pessoa Jr. is a Canadian judoka with Brazilian flair

‘It’s nice to participate, but I have the potential for the podium. I’m not a favourite, I’m just a guy who really, really wants it,’ Sergio Pessoa says of the Olympic experience looming on the horizon.

Michael Kooren/REUTERS

Sergio Pessoa represented Brazil in judo at the 1988 Seoul Olympics less than three weeks after the birth of his son. Twenty-four years later, Sergio Jr. is about to follow in his father's footsteps.

But when he takes to the mat at the 2012 London Summer Games, he will do so for Canada.

Pessoa moved to Canada in 2005, with his wife and three sons, determined to leave the busy, densely-populated Brazilian city of Sao Paulo. He landed a coaching job in New Brunswick, where he helped foster his son's journey toward Team Canada.

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Sergio Jr. says he has the potential to make the Olympic podium this summer. That's something a Canadian judo player has not done since the nation's most decorated judoka – Nicolas Gill – earned silver in Sydney in 2000, eight years after taking bronze in Barcelona.

The first-time Olympian is driven to surprise people in the under-60 kilogram weight class. With his father and Gill coaching him, Sergio Jr. has veteran guidance on his side.

In Sao Paulo, a city of towering skyscrapers and some 18 million people, Pessoa was a stock trader in the biggest financial centre in Brazil and coached judo several nights a week. Sergio Jr. took up the sport too, also coached by his aunt, and eventually represented Brazil internationally.

"We had a satisfactory life but as our kids were becoming teenagers, the idea of raising three boys in a city as violent as Sao Paulo became an issue for me and my wife," Pessoa, who speaks French, said through a translator. "An opportunity came to move to Canada, and we took it to give our boys a better chance at life – better education and a chance to learn new languages."

They settled in Kedgwick, N.B., population 1,000, and Pessoa coached at a small judo club, while his boys participated.

"I was happy to move to Canada, but we came from a big city, so living in such a small village was quite a big change," said Sergio Jr., who speaks fluent English, French and Portuguese. "The little club had never won medals before, and within my dad's first six months coaching there, they were winning some."

Pessoa was soon hired by one of Canada's top judo clubs, Shidokan in Montreal, where the national team trains. Sergio Jr. won a couple of Canadian junior championships and started competing at the top level for Canada by 2009.

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Still in Montreal, Pessoa is the national team assistant coach under Gill. His sons have entered university at Concordia and McGill. Sergio Jr. is getting a finance degree.

"As a father, you always expect your son to do better than you, or at least you hope he does," said Pessoa, who finished ninth at the 1988 Olympics in the same weight class. "I went to the Olympics but did not medal. So my hope is that he succeeds in getting a medal."

Sergio Jr. had a less-than-ideal Olympic training cycle. He dislocated a hip in December of 2010, and tore the a ligament in his left knee in June of 2011. He missed half of the period in which to qualify for the 2012 Games and faced a surge from another Canadian in his class. But he eventually earned an Olympic berth this spring.

"We will never know what type of player he could have been if the cycle had gone smoothly, but he overcame big challenges," Gill said.

"That really showed his mental strength."

Sergio Jr. is 15th in his weight class in the International Judo Federation's Olympic rankings.

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Statistically speaking, Gill says, history shows one of the four Olympic medalists in judo has often come from outside the top eight-ranked athletes.

"It's nice to participate, but I have the potential for the podium," Sergio Jr. said.

"I'm not a favourite, I'm just a guy who really, really wants it."

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