Speaking with Kelly is a pleasure. She arrives with honesty and humility and begins our conversation with, “No-one ever asked to interview me before.” We can take it for granted that her position is not easy, as the younger and, so far, less decorated Deguchi sister, what an act to follow!

“Yes, it’s really hard to be Christa’s sister. I’m so happy with Christa’s results and medals but when she has good results and I have lost I do feel it and it can be hard to be positive. In that situation I usually have a hard couple of days and then I’m ready to be more in control again. I can keep my head up."

Christa and Kelly at the Montreal Grand Prix, 2019. Photo by Rafal Burza, courtesy of Judo Canada

"I used to not like competition as it was so stressful and now, since the category change, I have to cut my weight. Before competing I will often think about the bad things that can happen; I’m sort of a pessimist, but right now I’m in a good place with it. More recently I go with a plan and worry less about the winning and losing. I had a sport psychologist help with that. If I think that I need to win or I need to throw it can put me off the real process but I have been able to change that mindset for the most part and now I believe more that I CAN win. That doesn’t mean I will win, but to believe I can is important. I now go to have fun on the tatami too. It helps me a lot to think this way. There is no-one at this level who cannot win so I have to trust me. If I believe I can, I trust my training and then I do my best, I feel I am going the right way. Of course if I lose I’m still sad and if I win I’m happy but either way I still trust. No-one can prevent me from believing in myself, it’s up to me.”

Baku, 2022

The truth is that Kelly doesn’t follow Christa, Kelly follows Kelly and has moved both country and category, both requiring adjustment. All changes, when in elite sport, require adjustment. The family lives in Japan and to begin with represented Japan but changing representation in favour of dad’s Canadian heritage opened horizons for Kelly, as did the moving from -57kg to -52kg only 18 months ago.

“In Budapest at the worlds we were both -57kg, me and Christa, but I couldn’t fight because there was Jessica too. Christa lost at that worlds and didn’t get the Olympics. Regarding my own situation, at -57kg I wouldn’t have the chances and so it made sense, to have the opportunities to develop internationally I should change category. I didn’t want to spend my career being Christa’s travelling, non-competing training partner."

Christa and Kelly in elementary school

"Actually, if we have the possibility to both go to Paris 2024, to go together and be each others training partner, it would be better for the family and for us as sisters. This weight change was a good decision. I think I’m performing better, the category suits me more. At -57kg I didn’t have the power to match them. It took a year to figure out my place in the new category and learn the opponents but now I feel very strong and definitely it was right. I have to be disciplined though. The first time making the weight, it wasn’t actually that hard to come down but life was very busy and it was really hard to maintain it.

I have learned a lot and importantly, I can eat a lot and choose to eat what I like, but I’m careful not to let that go too far. I understand my body and know how to make my weight correctly; I just have to be careful. I make good choices and am motivated knowing there is always a goal ahead. I eat whatever I like on my day off from training, on Sundays. I like to bake and I make my own sweet things. I love sweets. I make canelé but without butter and with coconut oil instead. I don’t use normal flour but rice flour or almond instead. Cooking is my happy place and sometimes I event sit and watch my oven, waiting to take things out and taste them.”

Sightseeing in Doha with grandma, grandma's first time travelling out of Japan

Kelly likes her life to be simple, from looking after her cats, cooking and training, to family time and spending quiet moments watching the world go by through coffee shop windows. “Cafe life is good for relaxation with friends but also I like to go alone and chill. It’s peaceful time where I don’t think about things, just enjoy the quiet.” In general the world forces us all to be busy and that’s ok but Kelly is getting used to knowing what she needs and reorganising whenever necessary, hence the weight change and other decisions made to streamline her life.

Stretching with Chobi the 3-legged cat

“Yamanashigakuin University is where I train most of the time, in Yamanashi, near to Tokyo. We train six days per week in judo and then I train in the gym in the mornings or maybe run. I also work part-time, so it’s a lot. I used to work Monday to Friday in insurance but my boss is a very good person and helped me to reduce my hours so I could focus more on both training and studying.

I believe I can be better. I didn’t get results yet but I feel like I’m a permanent challenger with nothing to lose so I will keep going for it and doing my best. I lost a lot of contests and have no gold medal on the WJT and I have this sort of frustration, one that is only with myself. It is part of my competitiveness and in some ways it drives me to try more things and find a new step to get stronger. There is a word in Japanese for this feeling but we can’t translate it: kuyashii. It’s like an awful feeling of personal frustration.

I don’t feel the medals are only for decoration, actually I want them. I know it’s not all about results but medals can show that we are on our way. I have to be very disciplined all the time, thinking about my nutrition and I always try hard with my preparation and in the contests. Knowing I tried my best is important, that part of the process is important.”

Kelly understands that there is value in that which is hard. “After Tashkent I thought about quitting because it’s so hard. I told Christa and she didn’t try to stop me but told me that I’m getting better so if I quit now it would be wasteful. If we like judo we need to try one more time. I love judo so I do judo. Without liking this sport it wouldn’t be possible.

My favourite moments in judo come every time I feel that an experience contributes to the future. I love to travel too, to different places making friends all over the world. I took gold in the Sofia European Open just recently and my family were so happy. That moment was really nice. I like to see them happy and I know my work contributes to that."

Gold at the 2023 Sofia European Open

"The next goal is really to qualify for Paris 2024. I don’t think about medal goals along the way because if I keep trying my best and if the medals start to come then I will be happy with the process, but I don’t aim at medals specifically.”

Kelly Deguchi feels every step of her road deeply. It’s hard and it can be complicated but she does her best every day and works to simplify, to improve and also to enjoy. With this mentality, the family support around her and a love for judo, she deserves what she aims for. Now, we wait…

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