This is a story more than 7 years in the making. It has been followed closely by the world’s sports media and has featured heavily on all IJF platforms: almost weekly articles on the website, videos on JudoTV, features on the Golden Score show, social media posts of every shape and size. In short, it’s been a very public rollercoaster, one that has forced both Christa Deguchi and Jessica Klimkait to discover new levels of professionalism and resilience.

In 2021 Jessica earned her ticket to the Tokyo Olympic Games and she made her case well, rewarding the selectors with a bronze medal. During the Tokyo cycle, Christa won the worlds in 2019 and Jessica won in 2021 just 6 weeks before the Games. The result of that Olympic race crushed Deguchi and coming back was to be a tall order.

Christa Deguchi (CAN) losing the bronze at the 2021 Budapest World Championships and losing the Olympic race to Tokyo.

In the Paris cycle, despite both athletes appearing on virtually every podium they have targeted, Deguchi has led from the front, edging Klimkait out methodically, steadily. A second world title for Christa came in Doha in 2023. Jessica medalled too but it was a bronze and the year that followed continued in the same vein. Deguchi amassed more points than any other athlete on the World Judo Tour but in second place was Jessica. The two best judoka in the entire world: both Canadian, both -57 kg, both world champions. They were chasing one ticket again but Deguchi wasn’t about to lose it a second time.

The -57 kg podium in Doha.

The qualification period for the 2024 Olympic Games is almost at its end. The Abu Dhabi World Championships is the last major qualifier, with just a handful of continental opens available to those on the cusp, events which don’t concern Christa or Jessica. Again they both made it to the podium but Christa reached the final while Jessica lost the semi-final. Christa’s entry into that final was enough for both judoka to know that the race was over; relief for one and a gut-wrenching realisation for the other.

Palpable relief in Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy of Tom Taylor / Judo Canada.

Christa Deguchi finished the day in Abu Dhabi with a silver medal but with a ticket to Paris; it’s hard to imagine that the highest earner of points on the world circuit was so at risk of not going to the Games but this is the reality. Christa offered a generous collection of thoughts after the final.

“Now I have to give up my red back patch and so I must work hard to get the gold one at the Olympics!” Nothing is this simple though.

“When I arrived in Abu Dhabi, I didn’t feel anything, really nothing. I was just calm, as normal. On the morning of competition, it was the same but in the tunnel before the first fight I felt something different. Usually I just think about what I want to do in the fight. This time it was like an extra kind of nervousness but also an indefinable excitement. Whatever it was, it seemed to work out for me.

Before the 2021 fights, at the worlds, I felt very nervous and I was slow on the mat. It was a completely different feeling.”

Why was it so different in Abu Dhabi?

Facing Tamaoki (JPN) in the world championship semi-final, 2024. Photo courtesy of Tom Taylor / Judo Canada.

“I just didn’t want to make the same mistakes as in 2021. Here I focused on one fight at a time but back then it was all about seeking the gold. So, first fight first was the way I had to approach it. It went well. The semi-final against Tamaoki (JPN) was a risky fight and the final was very tough too. I feel I did well today, I did the best I could on the day. I couldn’t do the judo I wanted to in the final, my judo, but I gave all I had. The silver here means I can’t be too comfortable for the next 9 weeks and so I will fix some things and prepare in a constructive way towards Paris. It was a good lesson.”

Deguchi (CAN) vs Huh (KOR) in the final, 2024.

The ability and willingness to accept lessons is a trait all elite athletes must have but the Tokyo cycle was so challenging and emotionally expensive, a tough period to learn from, tough to recover from.

“After the Budapest World Championships I couldn’t even think about doing judo. I had nothing left. I had no thoughts about what I wanted to do; it was just a basic eat-and-sleep mechanism. I didn’t even watch the Olympic Games; I couldn’t watch. I was tracking on Twitter but that’s all I could manage. I slowly tried to go to the dojo at my university, Yamanashi Gakuin. I started to wear the judogi and this was my first step. I did just uchi-komi for a few minutes and then step by step I did a tiny amount more. It took some weeks to graduate back to randori. Perhaps it was a healing process, I’m not sure if that’s the right word."

"My first competition back was Antalya in 2022, ten months after Budapest, and I was just there for fun. It’s not just for results that I do judo. I’m good at it and I’ve done it all my life so I continue. I didn’t win the gold in Antalya, my first time out since Budapest, but I was there and I was a judoka, not thinking about winning. It took a while, almost a year to get to that point.

Everyone continued to tell me it was a tragedy and that they feel sorry for me. I was sorry for me too but it had happened and many months had passed. I can’t go back so I have to go forward.

I’m not a person who talks too much or publishes my feelings but my family supported me a lot regardless. The good thing was that everyone allowed me to have the break. I went blonde for a while and they said nothing, they were patient with me. Maybe they thought I was going off the rails. They even said that maybe I can stop judo altogether! They were pretty chilled and I guess without any pressure from them, this is a big part of the reason I’m back here.

Photo courtesy of Christa Deguchi.

I do judo for me, I’m the one who is fighting but I want to take my family to the Games and since I was three years old they have supported me. When I moved to fight for Canada, it was something they supported, for example. It means a lot to me that I’m now able to show my grandparents, on both the Deguchi and Taylor sides of the family, a new experience. I really hope my grandmother can come to the Games.” She travelled to Doha for the 2023 World Championships, her first exploration outside Japan. “It will be big for us and also for the children who are at home in our childhood club.

I knew winning the semi-final in Abu Dhabi was enough for me to get the ticket to the Games. Everything I have said here, everything I have felt since Budapest, is inside this win.”

Christa Deguchi, soon to be Christa Deguchi OLY.
See also