Judo is returning to its historic home for the 2010 World Championships, and a Canadian woman will be in Japan as more than just a competitor.
Kelita Zupancic will be welcoming teammates as a ‘local’ of sorts, after the 20-year-old fighter from Whitby, Ont., spent several months training with the highly-regarded Komatsu women’s team -- one of the best in the world. Komatsu is one of Japan’s top makers of construction equipment.
Zupancic isn’t a run-of-the-mill Canadian judoka. She’s a world-class medal winner and one of the 13-member Canadian team with a rare chance to be on the world championship podium.
“For a Canadian to get invited to join the Komatsu team is such an amazing honour,” said Zupancic, who had trained in Canada under father Eddie Zupancic, a fourth-degree black belt, national coach Nicolas Gill, a two-time Olympic medalist, and Montreal-based Hiroshi Nakamura, one of Canada’s senior senseis in the sport.
Nakamura’s connections helped bring her to the attention of Komatsu leaders. She spent three weeks with them in Japan last January, then won a series of medals in world class events in Europe last February 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.
“Komatsu invites one foreigner per year to be a part of their team. This year I was lucky enough to be chosen but it did not come as easy as just luck. It was hard work to prove myself during those three weeks in Japan -- and to get the results to top it off,” Kelita Zupancic said in an e-mail message.
“But all that is easy compared to the year I have ahead of me. It is challenge that I am looking forward to, and I know that I am ready for. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime and there is no way I can let it pass me by.”
Zupancic competes in the 70kg class.
The men on the trip are: Sergio Pessoa (60 kg); Frazer Will (60 kg); Sasha Mehmedovic (66 kg); Michal Popeil (66 kg); Nick Tritton (73 kg); Kalem Kachur (81 kg); Guillaume Perrault (81 kg); Alexandre Emond (90 kg).
Joining Zupancic on the women’s mats are Isabel Latulippe (48 kg); Joliane Melancon (57 kg); Amy Cotton (78 kg); Catherine Roberge (78 kg).
Pessoa -- son of one of the Brazilian-born coaches of the Canadian team -- Mehmedovic and Tritton are deemed to have a chance to win matches in the men’s draw. Zupancic, Roberge and Cotton could win matches among the women. Gill said both Zupancic and Tritton, of Perth, Ont., have won Pan American championships and medals at World Cup events this season. “They’ve consistently been among the top players this year,” he said. Which is to say, they won’t be out of their depth in a world championship field. Pessoa belongs, too, but has missed several meets this season because of injuries.
“Japan is where judo was born. They’ve known performance and the top level from the beginning. And their women are by far the best team in the world,” Canadian head coach Gill said of Zupancic’s invitation to train in Japan with Komatsu.
“To have one of the strongest teams come and pick from Canada... it shows she has potential. They didn’t just pick her randomly.
“This year, we don’t yet have one fighter who can win everything, but a group of six or seven on the rise and from them someone will come through in the next two years,” said Gill, who was pushed into retirement after the Athens Games because of injuries.
“I’m the ‘old guy’ now, who started the program. The ‘old guy’ who has done it before. It was part of my motivation to be an Olympic coach -- to help kids do the same. A few years down the road, it will have an impact, then I can pass the torch.”
A LETTER FROM JAPAN
KELITA ZUPANCIC, 20, HAS SPENT SIX WEEKS TRAINING IN JAPAN FOR HER FIRST WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS WHICH OPEN THURSDAY. IN THIS LETTER, SHE DESCRIBES HER PREPARATIONS AND EARLY DAYS IN THE SPORT.
I have already been preparing in Japan for six weeks prior to the World Championships, which I think already gives me an advantage. During this time, I (have been) training with the Komatsu team as well as going through the All-Japan training camp as preparation for the World team members. It will be my first time competing at the World Championship and with the support from my Canadian team as well as my Komatsu teammates I think it can only be an advantage. Komatsu has a great team of supporters that I know will be cheering for me in the crowd. In a way, I guess I am now one of the home town favourites here. At the end of the day you can only fight from yourself. It is only you out there on that mat -- but it sure helps knowing you have a great team of supporters cheering for you!
Komatsu is known for their World class athletes and Olympic gold medalists. For the past few years, they have been ranked the number one women’s team in Japan. The Komatsu team has nine girls and now me as the 10th member. Two of the players are in the same -70kg weight class as me and are ranked in the top ten in the World. I believe that I can only benefit by training with this calibre of players and learning from Olympic gold medalists themselves as my coaches.
One of my coaches in Montreal, Sensei Hiroshi Nakamura, thought it would be a good idea for me to spend some time in Japan; possibly bring my judo to the next level and learn a different style of judo. His connections with the Komatsu team allowed to me stay there with them. The Japanese women’s team is one of the strongest teams in the World, if not the strongest at the moment. After spending 3 weeks in Japan in January I went to Europe for the month of February for the top world competitions and training camps. During this time, in two out of the three competitions I was on the podium with the other Komatsu team members. Soon after I came home from Europe, I had a call from the head Komatsu coach asking me to be a part of their team on a one year contract. It was offer I couldn’t resist. Training in Japan has always been one of my dreams.
My father (Eddie Zupancic) is a fourth degree black belt in judo. It is easy to say that his love for the sport has rubbed off on me. I think when it comes to any sport, family is always the most important. From the fundamentals of judo to the hard work and dedication is takes to make it to the top, he’s taught me it all. With three younger brothers, we were always very competitive and combative. But my mother always says I get the drive from her. She’s played just as an important part in this journey as my father. Any athlete can tell you that in the world of sports, it’s a roller coaster ride and the right support system is key to success.
During high school I trained at my dojo in Oshawa, Formokan Judo Club, under Charlie Formosa, Olympian Craig Weldon and Mohamad Hassani. I also trained at in Ajax at the Budokan under Olympian Kevin Doherty. I received my black belt soon after turning 16 and winning the junior national title. Currently, I am a second degree black belt. Being on the junior national team I was coached by Jean-Pierre Cantin. After I graduated high school, I moved to Montreal to train under national head coach and two- time Olympic medalist Nicolas Gill, Hiroshi Nakamura, Sergio Pessoa and Marie-Helene Chisholm.
Judo is very strong internationally for women. It may not be one of the most popular sports in Canada, but in Europe and Asia women’s judo is very well developed. Competing at the World Class level, it is very rare to find an easy fight. During practice, I train with both women and men. I think it’s good to have a mixture of strengths because both have different fighting styles. Every person offers something different and the more body types you get used to, the better fighter you will become.