Canada’s rising Judo Star Willing to pay the Price

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Canada’s rising judo star willing to pay the price

August 23, 2011

Randy Starkman

(Judo Canada photo)
Olympic judoka prospect and Whitby native Kelita Zupancic said
she knew at an early age that she wanted to compete in the Olympics.

It wasn’t unusual for the merits of one’s fighting skills to be debated in Kelita Zupancic’s home growing up.

Zupancic has three younger brothers, Anton, Ryan and Andrew, all of whom were drafted by the Ontario Hockey League. They’d verbally spar with their buddies on occasion about who was the toughest.

“The boys were telling each other: ‘I can beat you up.’ . . . ‘No, I can beat you up,’” recalled her father, Ed Zupancic. “And then one of my sons said ‘My sister can beat all of you up.’ And they all just nodded Yes.”

Kelita Zupancic wasn’t a bully and didn’t necessarily look like a fighter, but you sure didn’t want to mess with the Whitby native, especially on a judo mat.

That hasn’t changed since she was 5 and followed father, a fourth-degree black belt and former national champion, into the sport at the Formokan Judo Club in Oshawa.

“I knew right away,” said Kelita Zupancic. “I have my Grade 1 autobiography that says I’m going to the 2012 Olympic Games and it has a picture of me on the podium. So, I’ve known my whole life. It’s not something I just thought of. I’ve known I would be an Olympic athlete, didn’t know what sport, but I drew myself in a judo gi.”

Now 21, Kelita Zupancic is Canada’s rising star in the sport and competes this week in the under 70-kg class at the world championships in Paris. She’s an athlete who will likely be at her peak when the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics roll around, but she is determined that youth will be served at next summer’s London Games.

“I think my chances are actually good for a medal,” she said. “If I’m on and I fight the way I can and I’m on a roll and I get the first win going, it’s going to be hard to stop me, I think.”

There aren’t a lot of Canadian success stories in judo for a reason. The sport’s barely on the radar here and the physical and mental price you have to pay to be among the world’s best is far too exorbitant for most.

You’ve got to be a rare bird like Canada’s best-ever judoka, two-time Olympic medallist Nicolas Gill, who coaches Kelita on the national team and believes the competitive level is much tougher these days.

“She has what it takes, but it’s years of dedication that will create that,” said Gill.

That she’s tough enough is evident by the fact she just spent a year in Japan training and competing with one of the top company teams, industrial machinery giant Komatsu, which has two world champions in its impressive stable.

This is something Gill did during his climb and is not for the faint of heart.

“Everyone told me I was crazy for going, but I think it was a good challenge and I couldn’t say ‘No,’” said Kelita.

The regimen often included four hours of combat, twice the usual amount, gruelling mat exercises and a two-hour running drill that pitted athletes against each other.

“You’re running for your life basically,” she said. “It’s a race. The person who wins can go back to their room. But if you keep losing, you’ve got to keep running.”

Still, she learned so much and plans to return at some point.

“They’re just brutal, they just train so hard. I’d never experienced anything like this,” she said. “So I was lucky just to see how they trained. Even Komatsu, they’re secretive. If people want to come over from the different places and train at their dojo, they don’t let them see their weight-training program.

“When you think you’re good, you’re No. 1 in Canada, you go over there and people are just in a different league. It was an amazing experience.”

Kelita was quite a hockey star herself, playing for much of her youth on a boys’ AAA team. When she was around 13, she had to choose between hockey and judo because they were starting to conflict. Her dad wanted her to choose hockey. She agonized over it but picked judo and hasn’t looked back.

She laughed this week on the phone from Paris when reminded about the debate between her brothers and their friends.

“Definitely, I got a reputation growing up playing on the guys’ hockey teams,” Kelita said. “The guys knew how tough I was because I played with them. I got quite a good reputation for beating up boys going up through school.”

The Zupancic clan definitely has a well-developed work ethic. Ed Zupancic has his own computer IT consulting business, mother Annette just opened a restaurant in Oshawa, Jimmy Guaco’s Border Town Burritos, and the brothers have been working out hard all summer for hockey.

The whole family competed in judo at one point and Ed Zupancic remembers the time they took part in a tournament that handed out wooden trophies.

“We won enough wood to make a desk,” he laughed.

Now, their oldest kid wants heavy medal.

Judo victories


Born May 9, 1990, Whitby

ON THE MATSilver, Sao Paolo, June 2011

Bronze, Rio, June 2011

Bronze, Pan Ams, April 2011

Silver, Suwon, Korea, December 2010

Gold, Pan Ams, April 2010

Gold, Baku, Azerbaijan, January 2010


“My skin at the end of the days would just be raw from the training (in Japan). You were just dying.”

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