'A special moment': Family celebrates Olympic win of Whitby judo star Jessica Klimkait

Jessica Klimkait has been learning judo since she was four years old. On Monday, she became a podium winner in the sport at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. CBC Toronto spoke to her father about her journey — and his reaction to her win.

Training in judo since 4, Jessica Klimkait's family recounts journey that led to Olympic podium win

Jessica Klimkait has been learning judo since she was four years old. On Monday, she became a podium winner in the sport at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Jessica Klimkait's father is no stranger to her talent in judo. 

Rob Klimkait says his daughter was just four years old when she showed an interest in the sport. Having watched her father and brother compete in judo, she started memorizing their movements. 

She hasn't looked back since, climbing her way up to the world's highest-ranking spot. 

And now, Klimkait can add Olympic winner to her list of accomplishments. 

After battling four matches on Monday at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, she secured a bronze medal in the women's under-57-kilogram judo event. 

"It was a thrill of a lifetime to see my daughter get to that level," her father told CBC Toronto later Monday. 

Rob says he and his wife watched anxiously from their home in Whitby, Ont., as Klimkait competed Monday in a stadium more than 10,000 kilometres away in the birthplace of judo.

"It was a special moment for my wife and I to see her capture that medal," Rob said. 

Klimkait waves to the stands after being presented with the bronze medal in women’s under-57-kilogram judo competition at the Tokyo Olympics. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Though he would have liked to see her compete in-person, watching from a distance is a familiar feeling for Klimkait's parents. She moved to Montreal five years ago, where she has been training ever since. 

"We have gotten used to talking to her afterwards and appreciating her achievements," Rob said. 

1st Canadian woman to secure podium win in judo

Klimkait has been winning competitions since she was 16, but Monday marked the first time competing in the Olympics. 

Though she had her sights set on gold, she suffered a heartbreaking semi-final defeat to France's Sarah Léonie Cysique.

Jessica Klimkait of Canada, right, and Sarah Léonie Cystique of France compete during their women's -57-kg judo semifinal match, at the Tokyo Olympics. (Vincent Thian/The Associated Press)

"I knew she felt that she was ready to reach the top of the podium… so when I saw her lost that semifinal, regrettably, I knew she'd have a difficult time with that," Rob said. 

"But she's pretty strong in her mind as far as changing her focus. She had to put that to rest and focus in on that bronze medal match." 

It wasn't just about the medal, either. Klimkait also became the first Canadian woman to stand on the Olympic podium in her sport. 

'Willpower and determination' 

And not only was her bronze win Canada's fifth medal at the Tokyo Olympics, it also marked the country's first medal in judo since the 2012 Olympics.

"It's really just a representation of all the hard work I put into this sport, not only for the last two or three years, but since I was the age of four and I stepped onto the mat," she said in an interview following her podium win. 

Klimkait's father says she developed a love for the sport from him and her brother. (Sibmitted by Rob Klimkait)

Her father agrees. 

He says her medal is a symbol of both the triumphs and the losses she has faced in her journey to the Olympics. 

"She's been through it all. So she's very strong with her willpower and determination," Rob said. 

World's number 1-ranked judoka in her weight class

Before the pandemic hit, Klimkait and Canadian Christa Deguchi were set to face off for Canada's spot in this year's Olympics. Since there is only one Olympic spot available per country per event in Juno, it had been decided that whoever finished higher in the 2021 world championships would get Canada's 57-kilogram berth. 

But then, a bump in the road: Klimkait suffered a knee injury. 

WATCH | Jessica Klimkait qualifies for the Tokyo Olympics: 

Jessica Klimkait wins judo world championship gold and qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

6 months ago
Duration 11:39
Jessica Klimkait of Whitby, Ont. became only the second Canadian to win a judo world championship title, defeating Momo Tamaoki of Japan in the women's under-57 kilogram final in Budapest, while also earning the right to represent Canada at the Tokyo Olympics. 11:39

But there was a glimmer of hope. The pandemic had paused most sports worldwide, offering the opportunity for her to heal. 

In early June, Klimkait defeated Momo Tamaoki of Japan by waza-ari — the second highest score someone in judo can earn — in the world final, becoming Canada's second world champion in the sport after Deguchi won in 2019.

Klimkait won the world championship and booked her ticket to Tokyo. Deguchi finished fourth. 

Klimkait defeated Kaja Kajzer to secure podium spot 

On Monday, Klimkait defeated Slovenian Kaja Kajzer to secure her spot on the podium. 

Kosovo's Nora Gjakova won gold, while France's Cysique won silver. Japan's Tsukasa Yoshina also won bronze as they award two third-place finishes in judo.

Though she was emotional after her dashed dream for gold, she said she's proud of her journey.

Jessica Klimkait in her early days of judo. (Submitted by Rob Klimkait )

"Right now, I'm going to be emotional about missing that gold medal, but I think looking back I'm going to be proud of myself, because the last two or three years have been extremely hard," Klimkait said Monday. 

Her family couldn't agree more. 

Rob told his daughter after her bronze medal win: "Regardless of the colour, we're so happy for you."

With files from Devin Heroux and Greg Ross