Speaking with Kelita Zupancic, the highest ranked female judo athlete in the world and member of the Canadian Olympic team en route to Rio in August 2016, was nothing shy of inspiring. Learning about her early choice to chase her Olympic dream as a judo champion and the ins, outs and intensities of her daily life is just scratching the surface. Kelita speaks to The Prevail Project about giving back to the community and impacting the next generation of judo athletes, and as a woman who models what dedication and determination look like, she’s leading the pack in making her mark on the world of sport.
The Dream team:
My hands are my war wounds
Psychology and different aspects of therapy
Fighting for truth
I listen to Country music
I love fashion
Remember what you loved as a child
Massage therapy is essential
I admire my strength
Epsom salt baths
Can you speak a bit about what got you started in judo?
I grew up watching my dad do judo multiple times a week, and I think you always look up to your parents; it isn’t unusual to want what they do. So, I begged my dad to start. My mom says the second I stepped on the mat she said “that’s it; this is her sport.”
How did judo morph from a hobby into a career?
It’s always been about the Olympic dream, so I played every sport possible growing up. But, judo was my first sport and the first one I fell in love with.
When I was 16, I had to decide which sport I wanted to primarily pursue, and it was between hockey and judo. It was a tough choice because I loved both sports—a team sport versus an individual one—so I had to weigh the pros and cons, like an NCAA scholarship versus staying in Canada.
Both would give me free education but what really sold me was that judo gave me a lot of control over my career; I didn’t have a panel determining if I made the team or not. And the travel…especially the travel – with judo, you get to see the world.
Do you find most people start competing in judo for the same reasons you did - exposure by family or friends - or are there other catalysts for joining the sport?
Everyone gets into judo for a different reason, and, judo is a sport a lot of different ethnicities and cultures participate in. In very poor countries, people fight for their families and for money for them to eat and have a house to sleep in. I don’t think people realize that. We fight countries like Mongolia who worship their war heroes—like their Samurais—so there is a different type of energy when you compete against these people than athletes from some of the other countries.
When you compete against people from across the world and everyone is fighting for their own reasons, it’s really interesting. I fight for love and for fun, you know? It’s very different from the reality some of the other people I fight inhabit, and that’s something you don’t always think about in sport.
Have you always been sure you wanted to be a professional athlete?
I’ve always known the Olympic dream, and I’m one of those people to never stray from my dreams, and to never be influenced. My parents were really supportive of whatever I did, although my dad actually wanted me to play hockey, but I’m pretty stubborn so I just chose judo.
I asked myself “What can I wake up and do every day?” And that’s do judo and travel the world.
What’re some of the key elements in your growth as an athlete, competing at the level you do?
It’s definitely been all about the experiences; I’ve been exposed to extreme culture shock and put in extremely tough situations. Being constantly tested is an experience that makes you grow.
I have coaches and trainers and physios and psychologists watching me every day. I mean if that’s not enough pressure, I’m also constantly being analyzed. This is a 24/7 job; even when I’m ‘off’ I’m ‘on’. It’s like going to school or having a business – the business world never sleeps. It’s a never-ending rat race to the Olympics, but I have a team of people who support me. That, along with trying new things and pushing my limits, has really contributed to my success so far.
What is a ‘day in the life’ of an Olympic judo athlete like?
Today I woke up, went to the gym, then did judo and that took me until 12:00pm. Then I came home, ate, slept, and will go back to the gym at night. That’s the cycle: train, eat, sleep, train, repeat – ha! That’s seven days a week. How exactly I’m training makes for a little variety, but judo is a sport you have to do to get better. Running and weightlifting won’t make you good at it.
Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on anything since judo is so all-encompassing, or are you all-in in terms of it being worth it?
No, this is my dream. I know I’d have regrets if I was doing something else. As an athlete, you can’t have regrets.
When I made the Olympic team, everyone told me the Olympics is like no other competition you’ve ever done in your life. I’ve spent my entire life training for this one event, and I’m battling psychologically: is it going to be everything I think it’s going to be? Am I going to be able to perform the way I hope to, or maybe even over perform?
Olympic judo doesn’t necessarily bring psychology immediately to mind - you seem to be interested in that aspect of it though, aren’t you?
I’ve gotten really into psychology and different aspects of therapy, and it’s opened up a totally different world to me in terms of healing and understanding when I perform my best. I started really focusing on levels of stress and pressure, as well as monitoring the kind of schedule I need in order to perform – hectic and crazy or steady and calm.
I’ve really gotten to know myself in this process, and I think when you get to know yourself, you become really happy. Your soul feels satisfied and when you know what you’re doing is right; it’s nice to have no regrets. It’s a calmness, and a complete lack of stress. You know what’s going to happen is going to happen, that you’re on the right path, and that you can trust the journey. Feeling you are where you’re meant to be, wherever your feet are in the world in a moment, is wonderful.
How do you use visualization - a popular technique in combat sports - and how does it support you in your preparation for your fights?
Every morning, or sometimes if I’m just stressed, I take a few minutes and close my eyes and meditate. I visualize anything that could possibly go wrong or that I fear. For example, if I’m stressed about a really tough training, I visualize the worst thing that could happen, like getting really tired. Things just don’t look as bad when you think about them from a higher, calmer perspective. Then I ask myself “What would you tell yourself in that situation? If you were your own friend, what would you say?” That’s the kind of visualization I do – it’s more calming.
I know how to perform. Doing judo is not the issue for me, it’s everything else in my life: the stress of my parents, my coaches, myself…I’m my own worst enemy. Visualization helps me let everything go so I can perform.
By a higher perspective, I mean a place where you know things aren’t always going to go to plan. No judo fight goes exactly how you planned, and that’s why it’s so hard to visualize a fight because 99.9% of the time it will never go the way you think it will go.
You have to leave ten percent or even one percent—whatever percent you need—as just a little room for spontaneity and for things to go your way. When you’re on your path and you trust the journey, you can say it’s magic, your stars are aligned, or it’s a gift from a higher power; a little faith and things will be good.
What has been one of the biggest self esteem breakthroughs so far for you?
I would definitely say the 2012 Olympics Games. I fought the two-time world champion – who ended up winning gold for France – and I gave her one of the toughest fights of the day.
I went in very young as a wild card, and left the stadium getting interviewed by the French media, many of whom were saying “we’ll see you in Rio!” Almost 8 months later, I was the first Canadian ever to reach number one on the world ranking list; since then, I’ve been top in the world. I definitely feel Rio is going to be that next moment!
If you could go back in time to when you were starting your athletic career and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be happy with your career and make your own choices; don’t let anyone make important choices for you. Every kind of wrong turn I’ve made, I’ve relied on other people’s expertise. And while they may be experts, only you know how you feel. Following your intuition and your gut instinct is so key to being successful.
How do you deal with criticism?
First of all, there’s a big difference between criticism and critique; criticism can be thrown in the garbage – put on your earmuffs and don’t listen to the haters. But if you’re being critiqued, that’s definitely the time to listen, as there’s an opportunity to learn by hearing a different perspective. I actually love being critiqued, but criticized…who has time for that? No way.
How do you prepare yourself for your opponent before a fight?
I watch video to study strategically how to beat the person. You can’t control other people, so you can only control what you do. If I constantly look at the world ranking list and obsess over opponents, I find I can put people on a pedestal. Focusing on the stats and numbers isn’t my game – I just concentrate on myself. Obviously for coaches, it’s the opposite; they have to know the stats as well as the strategies. I leave the numbers to my coaches and put myself on the pedestal.
Do you train with women or men or both?
I train mostly with men because fewer women are available; I’m a bigger girl plus I’m one of the best in the world, so there aren’t too many women at my level in Canada.
When we were in Japan, we hired men to be our training partners; it’s important to train with people who will give you a challenge. I always say to the guys I fight “You’ll never win against me: you look bad if you beat me and you look bad if I beat you.” That’s one of the minor plus sides to being a girl in a masculine-dominated sport.
What’s it like travelling as much as you do?
I live out of a suitcase, but I love it. Being on the road is very hard; I’m not on vacation when I’m on the road, I’m always in training camps or cutting weight or competing, so am always in a high stress situation, but I love what I do.
My dad asked me around Christmas “Why don’t you post how hard it is?” But it’s what I chose and I don’t want to complain; I don’t want people to feel bad for me because I don’t feel bad for myself. It’s expected to be hard, and wouldn’t be satisfying if it wasn’t.
What’s something you’re seeing occur—either technically from a sport perspective or in the community at large—in the younger generation of fighters you want to affect?
Definitely empowerment. I’ve heard coaches and mentors around us constantly saying how hard being an athlete is, and so it’s refreshing when someone tells you how it can be easy, or when someone can simplify life for you.
I think younger athletes, or even high school students, would benefit from being asked where they see themselves and what they want. I’m honestly not sure that those questions are always being asked. People just get thrown in the grind of it, and are kind of running around with their heads cut off, or maybe they’re doing something because their parents want them to, or they feel the pressure just to leave home.
My mentality is if I have time to think about anything else other than what I’m doing, especially in the gym, I’m not working hard enough. Knowing your commitments and goals comes with experience, so putting together a program for these younger athletes to help them assess where they are, figure out what they want, set goals and strategize would be really meaningful.
Secondly, we’re lacking a lot of women in judo right now; I understand there’s a research study in the works to look into why that’s happening, and I’m really curious to see the results.
What would you hypothesize is the reason for the lack of women in judo?
Well, I’d say it’s a pretty manly sport in the traditional sense. Maybe it’s society’s pressure for women not to be in such a masculine sport?
Personally, I’ve always been drawn to masculine sports, possibly because I have three brothers. I’ve always felt women can do anything men can, and I’m here to prove that! I really like a challenge: telling me what I can’t do just drives me even harder to do it.
What would you tell young Olympic hopefuls?
When you’re young, play as many sports as you can; it will make you a better overall athlete.
That’s what I did: I gave myself as many options as I possibly could to pick whatever sport I wanted so I could go to the Olympics. Keeping every door open for as long as you can gives you choices; life is about the choices you make. Being excited, being pumped about your choices makes it easier to have no regrets and to succeed.
What’s your vision for the next 3 - 5 years?
I’d like to get into psychology or coaching; something to do with the mental game.
When you’re an athlete you have all these different trainers and it’s all so disjointed. What’s lacking is something – or someone – to bring it all together. We’re the sum of all our parts, and during competition, whatever stresses you may have are going to come out. I personally need to deal with things before I go compete because I need to have a peaceful, calm, free mind to be myself and fight to my best ability.
To have someone to help you put that all together would be game changing. Because we’re not just physical, just fighters, just animals. When I fight I feel like I’m in animal mode, and I almost have to be, since it’s so instinctive. Being treated animalistically is fine at times, but it’s just one aspect of who we are. I want to look at what’s actually blocking you when you do lose: is it physical? Mental? Spiritual? That’s what I want to offer.
Have you thought about what legacy you wish to leave?
I’ve been asked pre-fight “other than the medal, what are you fighting for?” because when you win a medal, a whole nation—the whole world—will look at you and what your message is as a role model. For me it goes down to fighting for truth; being who you are and being true to yourself.
After my career it’s important for me to give back to the community, and I’m excited for that part of my journey. I’ve worried my career choice was selfish and I’m determined to be a better person every day; I really think I’ll have a wealth of experience that will make me qualified to give back in a meaningful way, and I feel really good about that.
If I’m doing something I love, I’m leading by example for other people to follow suit, and be happy. And if that can inspire just one person, I’m hoping the energy has a ripple effect. I’m not sure what more you can ask for in life other than to be happy.