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Judo in the time of Covid-19: Kelita Zupancic

14 May 2020 09:40

 JudoCrazy by Oon Yeoh    Oliver Sellner

If you look at the World Ranking Canadian Kelita Zupancic still matters, but the former world number one isn’t so dominant anymore as she used to be. Zupancic though is doing great and ready for her third Olympic Games. After that she will quit and start a family life with Travis Stevens. Life’s good for Kelita who speaks with JudoCrazy’s Oon Yeoh about future judo babies, her book and parents.

JIC: How are you coping with the Covid-19 situation?

KZ: I’m at home staying safe which is my number one priority. Currently, I am not doing judo training because I don’t want to risk an injury and having to go to the hospital. My home workouts consist of band uchikomis and strength and conditioning training.

JIC: How do you feel about the Olympics being postponed for a year?

KZ: This pandemic is so much greater than the Olympics. I am grateful that we are being protected as athletes in this time of crisis. For me, this is just part of my journey and it will be a great story to tell later when this is all done. Staying positive and being hopeful is important for my mindset. I’m able to stay positive because I recognize that I am safe and supported by really amazing people.

JIC: You’ve been to two Olympics already. How important is a third one for you?

KZ: Reaching my full potential has always been my goal as an athlete. This third one is very important for me to be able to finish my career with no regrets. I want to know that I took every opportunity to be the best athlete I could possibly be. The Tokyo Olympics will allow me to complete my journey.

JIC: There’s speculation that the situation might not be safe for the Olympics even a year from now. If it’s pushed even further, will you still continue?

KZ: This is something I will need to address when the time comes. As an athlete, I cannot worry about something that's out of my control. But if that time comes, I will have to sit down with my team and discuss our options. I was planning on getting married and getting pregnant after the Olympics so there’s definitely a lot to think about.

JIC: So, no more competitions after that?

KZ: Travis and I decide a long time ago that Tokyo 2020 will be my last competition. We plan on having children so my body will be used for a much different purpose, which I am extremely excited about. Motherhood is something that I've been looking forward to for as long as I can remember. The judo babies are coming!

JIC: How did you meet Travis and can you give us some insight into what type of person he is?

KZ: We had been in each other’s lives for almost a decade before we officially met. Travis being from the US and myself from Canada, we were on similar travel schedules for international competitions. Our first introduction and conversation didn’t happen until the 2013 Tokyo Grand Slam when I joined the USA team for dinner. The connection was undeniable, and the conversation was so easy. We had so much in common, similar goals and timelines, that we couldn’t believe it took this long to actually connect. I believe in divine timing and that’s what it truly felt like. We were just ready for each other. His passionate fighting style is a direct reflection for how he is as a person. He is a very passionate man and will do anything for those he loves. I can’t wait to see what kind of father he becomes.

JIC: Speaking of fathers, your father is a judo coach, yet three of your brothers ended up in hockey and only you pursued judo. Why is that?

KZ: The answer is simple. We are Canadians and being a hockey player is the “Canadian Dream.” It was a tough choice for me when I was 16 years old. I had hockey scholarships starting to come in and an intense competition schedule for judo. It took three months of weighing the pros and cons of which Olympic journey I would pursue. But when I closed my eyes and saw myself at the Olympic Games, I saw myself wearing a judogi.

JIC: What's the most important thing your father taught you?

KZ: Looking back, I feel that the greatest gift my father gave me was humility. I am grateful for everything he has done for me. I am the person I am today because of him.

JIC: Did you like judo from the start?

KZ: I loved judo right from the start. As you noted, I have three brothers, so growing up was all about who's the strongest. I was always naturally strong, athletic and built like a tank. Judo gave me confidence and a way to use my natural born talents.

JIC: What made you decide to compete?

KZ: I started competing when I was five years old so I’m not sure this was really a choice. It just happened. But I loved it.

JIC: What was training like at Formokan Judo Club?

KZ: Formokan is a family-run dojo. Some of my best memories were from there. Sensei Charlie was my first judo teacher. He is the most loving, caring and supportive man. To this day he is one of my favorite humans in the entire world. He’s been there supporting me through my entire competition career. He went to both Olympic Games to watch me compete. I love this man and everything he has given me. Sensei Charlie has dedicated his life to the sport of judo and that is something I also want to do.

JIC: How was it like training in Montreal?

KZ: Montreal was a big chapter in my life and it has a special place in my heart. I lived and trained there for eight years. It was there I trained for two Olympic Games. I always made sure that I lived less than a 12-minute walk to the dojo because that was all I could endure during the harsh winter months. But seeing the dedication of all the coaches and athletes, showing up, day in and day out, made it easy to go to practice. It was there that my passion for judo grew even stronger as I was surrounded by like-minded people. They became my judo family.

JIC: Can you tell us about your training in Japan and fighting for Komatsu?

KZ: That was the most intense year of my life. I went there alone at the age of 20. The Japanese have grueling training methods and as a 20-year-old, it really tested my limits. I am grateful and honored that Komatsu chose me to be a part of their team. To this day I remain in contact with a lot of my old teammates. We went through a lot that year, including the devastating tsunami. A lot of them, I still see on the IJF circuit and it’s always fun to catch up with them.

JIC: Now, you are based in Boston. What’s it like and what made you decide to move there?

KZ: It’s a family environment here in Boston. Jimmy Pedro and his father, Big Jim, have produced female Olympics medalists for the past three Olympics Games. When the opportunity presented itself after the 2016 Rio Olympics, it was a no-brainer. I knew that not everyone gets the opportunity to be trained by so many pros. After competing in two Olympics Games with no medal, this was something I couldn’t refuse. It also means Travis and I could be together, which in turn would make life easier on our relationship as well.

JIC: Are there more randori partners in Boston or Montreal?

KZ: Montreal has more bodies but at this point in my career I spend more than six months on the road at training camps anyway. Besides, the drilling and technical development is where I am going to make the biggest gains.

JIC: What would you say is the main differences between how the Canadians train, how the Japanese train and how the Pedros train you?

KZ:  In Montreal, I always had access to a wide variety of coaches. There is a big coaching staff that all worked together to help the athletes. It was there that I was able to seek advice and guidance with many different types of coaches. It is a great feeling knowing that there is so much knowledge in the room that's available to you. In Japan, I had access to the best players in the world in my weight class every day. Knowing that I was training with the best gave me confidence as an athlete. In Boston, I get so much one-on-one attention working with Big Jim, Jimmy and Travis every day. Our weekly goal-setting meetings, the intense coaching style and the family dojo are a priceless experience for me.

JIC: You are of Slovenian heritage. Have you gone to Slovenia to train?

KZ: Yes, I trained there many times. I competed there before both Olympic Games, and stayed for training camps with Urska Zolnir before 2012 and Tina Trstenjak before 2016.

JIC: How important is mental preparation for you?

KZ: I believe that women need to feel supported in order to win. I’ve observed the female Olympic podiums for a long time and I noticed there is a common thread. These women all have great relationships with the people around them. This is something that I now have and there’s nothing more powerful than a woman who feels that support, and chases fearlessly after her goals. I work weekly with a mental coach to keep myself and my emotions in check. As a woman, I cannot compartmentalize like a man so I must ensure I am doing everything in my power to keep a good balance in my life, otherwise it will affect my judo. I do a lot of visualization and meditation. This helps put me in the best mental state, which can make the difference between winning and losing. We all show up for competition in great physical shape; the difference is who is in the best mental shape.

JIC: Can you tell us about your Sweating Gold workbook?

KZ: It contains some of my mindset and goal setting strategies that I use daily. The workbook breaks down and simplifies my goals in order for me to reach my highest potential. I feel that during this pandemic, I should help the community by sharing my knowledge. After 12 years of competing on the world stage, I have created many tools, alongside the many professionals I have worked with over the years, to help me become the best athlete I can be. I have a lot of people who have helped me, and I feel a great desire to give back and share these tools with others.

JIC: We talked about your dad earlier. Can you tell us something about your mom?

KZ: When I moved out of the house at 18, my mom and I made a pact that we would follow our respective dreams. Mine was the Olympic gold medal and hers was to open a chain of restaurants.  It truly seems like our respective careers are in sync. On the same day that I fought in my first World Championships, my mom opened her first restaurant called Jimmy Guacos, which is a Mexican-inspired grill specializing in authentic burritos, with fresh ingredients and homemade sauces. The summer I competed in the 2012 London Olympics was the same summer my mom opened her second restaurant. The next year when I hit the #1 spot on the IJF World Ranking List, she opened her third restaurant. If you are ever in the Toronto area, my mom’s restaurants are in Whitby, Oshawa and Peterborough. Stop by for some Olympic-level burritos!

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Related Judo Photos

  • Kelita Zupancic (CAN) - Grand Prix Montreal (2019, CAN) - © Canada Judo
  • Kelita Zupancic (CAN) - World Championships Baku (2018, AZE) - © Oliver Sellner
  • Kelita Zupancic (CAN) - Pan American Games Toronto (2015, CAN) - © Rafal Burza

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