Christa Deguchi needs to 'chill': Canadian judoka chasing Olympic dream at Commonwealth Games
Former world No. 1 focusing on mental prep after missing Tokyo 2020
A recent victory at the Zagreb Grand Prix has Canadian judoka Christa Deguchi in better spirits as she begins on the long - and winding road to the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
Deguchi would like for that journey to end with her reaching her ultimate goal: becoming an Olympic champion. For now, that starts with the Commonwealth Games.
The 26-year-old was able to jump six spots in the world rankings with the gold-medal win in Croatia on July 15, moving up to No. 17 in the women's under-57 kilogram division entering her first Commonwealth Games.
The Birmingam Games are also be the first opportunity for the former world No. 1 to represent Canada at a multi-sport event.
"It was very nice to win again [in Zagreb] and it made me look forward to an Olympics again," Deguchi told CBC Sports about her latest performance. "I'm excited [for the Commonwealth Games], I want more experience. I want to do the best so I can bring back the gold for Canada.
"This year, to win the worlds will be the biggest goal. In the future, to be a gold medallist in the Olympics – [that's] the final goal for me."
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Deguchi, who had competed for Japan prior to joining the Canada team, has made history wearing the Maple Leaf before.
She is the first Canadian woman to medal at the judo worlds when she took bronze in 2018. Deguchi then became the first to win gold at the world championships the very next year.
Her fall in the rankings began when fellow Canadian Jessica Klimkait, the current world No. 1, leapfrogged her with a grand slam victory in October of 2020.
The two were originally on a path to face each other in 2020 for the lone spot to represent Canada in Tokyo, but it never came to fruition after Klimkait suffered a knee injury and competition was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Klimkait – who has lost all six career meetings against Deguchi – eventually secured the spot in the Olympics by winning the 2021 world title. She went on to be the first Canadian woman to stand on an Olympic podium, earning bronze last summer. Klimkait will be skipping the Commonwealth Games to prepare for October's world championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, according to Judo Canada.
Healing process, learning to handle pressure
The missed opportunity is something that still sits with Deguchi, more than a year later.
"I'm still in the healing process and trying to come back again [and] become a world champion and Olympic champion," she said. "That's almost three years ago and everyday I change, so I have to become a new Christa Deguchi. I'm trying to find a new way to win and process [things].
"I was [once the] No. 1 ranked player, [but] because I didn't do well at worlds, Jessica got the chance and she got the medal. It was her day, it wasn't my day. I didn't do well when I had to do the best. It was tough because I thought I had a chance to win the Olympics. I had a hard time to deal with those things."
The high stakes led to Deguchi putting immense pressure on herself, which she says played a key role in her fifth-place finish at the worlds.
Canadian national team coach Antoine Valois-Fortier, who is also an Olympic medallist, says a strong mental game is key to Deguchi's success.
"Christa is an extremely high-level athlete. It will all be a question of being physically fit, and not injured, being mentally ready for the tournament and managing her weight well," Valois-Fortier said.
"If she can show up with a strong mind, a calm mind, a healthy body and everything she could do at the right time, then the sky's the limit for her. She has every tool to win every event. It will be a question of handling the physical demand of judo and the mental demand of going for another Olympic cycle."
Deguchi knows she needs to make changes to how she approaches competition during this Olympic cycle, and that means going back to her 'chill' roots.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself and it made everything difficult. I wasn't that kind of person [before] – I was more relaxed before competition, and a more chill person," she said.
"But before the worlds, I couldn't think like that. I was more tense and having problems eating, sleeping, and thought I had to fix that. That will be my next thing that I have to change. That was the hardest thing in my life."
Having worked on the mental aspect of her preparation – focusing on "not thinking too much" prior to competitions and turning away from self-inflicted pressure – Deguchi looks to carry her new momentum into Birmingham, and the upcoming world championships.