The Rise of Kelita Zupancic

Every great athlete gets knocked down.  In fact, getting knocked down is what can help make an athlete great. Case in point: Kelita Zupancic.

After a disappointing showing at the 2012 London Games, the native of Whitby, ON, and -70kg judoka has soared to the number one ranking in the world. In her Olympic debut, Zupancic would lose her first match of the tournament to the eventual gold medallist from France Lucie Decosse – an experience that has shaped her into a true champion.

“I gave everything I possibly could in my fight and lost in the last 20 seconds,” said Zupancic, 23, about the Games.

Since then, Zupancic has rebounded and been on a tear reaching the podium in four of the six events she’s entered; winning three gold medals – including a Pan American Championship title in San Jose in April.

After starting the year ranked 15th overall, Zupancic is now at the top of her -70kg division after winning the recent Grand Slam in Baku this past weekend.

“It’s really a cool feeling being in first, it’s incredible,” the judoka exclaimed. “I’ve been working so hard to get to this level, and now I’m going to try even harder to stay. I don’t feel any kind of pressure in particular, I’m just going to focus on the formula that got me here.”

After London, Zupancic took some time off to refocus and consider what went wrong during her performance. Photo: Judo Canada

New Beginnings 

After London, Zupancic took some time off to refocus and consider what went wrong during her performance. She would have more than four months after the Olympic Games to prep for her first major competition.

Using her memories of London for motivation, Zupancic closed out the 2012 calendar year finishing in fifth place at the Grand Slam Tokyo Jigoro Kano Cup before starting an incredible run in 2013.

The biggest change came after she realized she had not done enough to mentally prepare herself for London. Zupanic admitted that all competitors, including herself, show up in the best shape of their lives for the Olympic Games.

However, the difference in performance a lot of the time lies on those who put heavy emphasis on the non-physical aspects of their sport.

“I really focused on my mental game,” said Zupancic. “Finding my confidence and trusting myself was really important. I feel like I’ve put in my time and done all the work. I felt like it was my time to win.”

Training with a legend

Zupancic got her start in the sport as a five-year-old at the Formokan Judo Club in Oshawa, ON. She quickly excelled in the sport and won a Canadian U20 Championship in 2006 at the young age of 16.

A rising star at 18, Zupancic relocated to Montreal to take part in the national training centre program, where she is coached by idol and two-time Olympic medallist Nicolas Gill.

Gill’s legendary career is one from which Zupancic can learn. The native of Montreal went eight years between his bronze at Barcelona 1992 and silver at Sydney 2000. Like any athlete, Gill had his shares of ups and downs on the way to the most decorated Canadian judoka career.

Zupanic has looked to Gill for inspiration since she was a kid. She remembers her father waking her up in the middle of the night to watch Gill fight in the gold medal match at those Sydney Games.

“That was moment where I said that if a Canadian can make the finals in Judo, so can I,” said Zupancic. “He was my inspiration to pursue this Olympic dream and know it’s possible to be on the podum.”

Teachings of Japan

Zupancic got her start in the sport as a five-year-old at the Formokan Judo Club in Oshawa, ON. Photo: Judo Canada

Zupancic’s biggest lesson about rebounding may have come during a non-judo related incident, but one that would change the way she looks at life forever.

At the age of 19, she was sent to Japan for one month to train with the Komatsu Judo team and  moved there full-time in July 2010.

Her life would forever change in March of 2011 after the devastating tsunami earthquake of Japan struck during one of her training camps. Although not harmed, the traumatizing experience left Zupancic with a new outlook on her team and her time in Japan.

“I realized how much I bonded with my teammates even if we did not speak the same language,” said Zupancic. “I felt a lot of pressure from Canada to come home for my safety. I was thinking that if my teammates are here, that I shouldn’t leave. Supporting each other got us through it.”

Strong Family Ties

The members of the Zupancic family do let each other get hung up on the speed bumps in life.

Kelita comes from a family of judokas. Her father, Edward, is a fourth degree black belt and one of her first coaches. Her whole family has been involved in the sport, including mom Annette and Kelita’s three younger brothers.

All three of her brothers: Anton, 21, Ryan, 19, and Andrew, 18, excel at hockey and have been drafted into the Ontario Hockey League.

“My parents really instilled hard work in us and taught us to support each other,” said Kelita. “We’re really all doing what we love. Family support means everything to us.”

The entire Zupancic family will be supporting Kelita all the way toward Rio 2016. The star judoka has fully committed to training for her goal of an Olympic medal.

“I’ve put in my time,” said Zupancic. “I’m no longer that new up and comer. I’ve been to the Olympics and I feel like I know myself better. I’m a mature athlete and I’m aiming for the podium.”

– George Fadel

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