Jessica Klimkait wins judo bronze to make Canadian history

Inside the hallowed Nippon Budokan near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Canada’s Jessica Klimkait won bronze in the women’s under-57-kilogram judo event.

Becomes 1st Canadian woman to stand on Olympic podium in her sport

Canada's Jessica Klimkait, seen above in an earlier match, won judo bronze at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Having just lost the most devastating match of her career — a semifinal defeat to go for gold in the women's under-57-kilogram judo event — Canada's Jessica Klimkait wasn't sure she could step back out on the mat for another match.

She was heartbroken. As the world's No. 1-ranked judoka in her weight class, Klimkait had imagined a golden moment in Tokyo to end her first Olympic experience.

But there was still a medal up for grabs. It wasn't the colour Klimkait wanted, but it was a chance to reach the podium.

Klimkait cried a bit. She talked to her coach. Not long after that, she got back on the mat for her bronze-medal match.

Inside the hallowed Nippon Budokan near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Klimkait showed resilience, power and poise to battle back and win bronze for Canada.

WATCH | Klimkait makes Canadian history, captures Olympic bronze:

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

1 year ago
Duration 11:40
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.

She defeated Slovenian Kaja Kajzer to become the first Canadian woman to land on the Olympic judo podium.

"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. 

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.

WATCH | Klimkait steps to the podium for her historic medal:

It's Canada's first medal in judo since the 2012 Olympics.

"I came here with gold in mind. That was the goal for me," Klimkait said, fighting back tears. 

"At the end of the day I'm just happy I was able to collect myself after that loss and come away with a medal."

Stunning loss in semis

Klimkait's gold medal dreams were dashed about an hour earlier by France's Sarah Léonie Cysique.

The referee handed Klimkait a third shido, or penalty, after a failed attack. That gave Cysique a stunning win.

"I'm a really offensive player," Klimkait conceded. "The only solution that I had was that I was trying to attack. I kept trying to attack. Some of [the attacks] were not as great as they could have been."

Klimkait, 24, had to battle through four matches on Monday to secure the bronze, including the demoralizing semifinal.

"I just used all my mental strength that I could and kept it about trying to perform in the bronze medal match despite my emotions and some physical fatigue," she said.

WATCH | Klimkait reflects on her historic medal for Canada:

Klimkait, who is from Whitby, Ont., has been carving a new path in the sport for Canada over the past number of years, alongside the world's No. 2, Canadian Christa Deguchi.

But it wasn't a completely smooth journey for Klimkait in becoming an Olympic winner.

Before the pandemic hit in March 2020 and COVID-19 shut down sports around the world, Klimkait and Deguchi were months away from a fight-off for Canada's lone Olympic quota spot — and then Klimkait suffered a knee injury.

The pandemic pause was a blessing for her, as she was able to rest and recover. She told CBC Sports that if she hadn't gotten the time off, she wouldn't have been able to train properly and would have lost the fight-off, which would have ended her Olympic dream.

WATCH | Arthur Margelidon just misses reaching Olympic judo podium:

With only one Olympic spot available per country per event in judo, it had been decided that whoever finished higher at the 2021 world championships would get Canada's 57-kg berth.

In early June, Klimkait defeated Momo Tamaoki of Japan by waza-ari 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. 

"The last two or three years have been really uncertain for me in trying to qualify for the Olympics," Klimkait said. 

"I had to tuck the dream of the Olympics away and try to get better at judo for a while. I just did my best to be the best player I could, and hoped that would be enough for qualification."

WATCH | Klimkait wins judo world championship gold, qualifies for Tokyo:

It was somewhat of a full-circle moment for the Canadian judo program. Canada's first judo medal was won inside the same Budokan venue at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo by Doug Rogers, taking the heavyweight silver. 

It would take two decades before Canada would win another judo medal, as Mark Berger won heavyweight bronze at the 1984 Games.

Klimkait celebrates during the medal ceremony for the judo women's -57kg contest at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on Monday. (Franck Fire/AFP via Getty Images)

Coming into these Games in Tokyo, Canada had won two silver medals and three bronze medals. Canada hadn't won an Olympic medal in judo for nine years. 

But Klimkait has ended the drought in the same place judo became an Olympic sport. 

"That's been a goal and dream of mine, not only to attend the Olympic Games, but to be on the podium. Obviously the highest step on the podium would have been preferred," she said.

"I still wanted to feel that pride, even if it wasn't gold."

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