A junior world champion with the Japanese team in 2013 and 2014, the lightweight judoka
will now come face to face with her former teammates as direct rivals, with the Tokyo 2020 Games on the horizon.
“There aren’t many judo players that have switched their nationality from Japan so it was a little strange,” Deguchi tells CNN Sport.
“But my dad is Canadian and I’m half-Canadian, so I thought it would be nice to fight for another country. I wanted to fight for Canada.”
Born in Nagano, home to the snow monkey and some of Japan’s most iconic temples, Deguchi took up judo at the age of just three.
Her grandmother was a hairdresser who counted a prominent local sensei among her regular clients.
“He came in to get his haircut and he scouted me,” Deguchi recalls. “From that day, I started my judo.”
Her rise up the ranks was swift, with the youngster winning a number of international titles and quickly establishing herself as one of the country’s most exciting talents.
With the sport returning to its birthplace at the upcoming Olympics, everything seemed to point toward Deguchi representing Japan.
Canada’s most decorated judoka, Nicolas Gill, had other ideas.
“We contacted originally five years ago, before she started competing for Japan,” says Gill, a two-time Olympic medalist who’s now the team’s high-performance director.
“Her performance at national events in Japan showed signs that she could be a world-class athlete. She chose to represent Japan at that time, but we made it clear that we would always be interested.
“We contacted her a few times over that span of time to validate her interest and finally she accepted to switch.”
With countries limited to one athlete per weight category at the biggest competitions, Deguchi was well aware Team Canada gave her the best chance of consistently making the squad.
But her final decision was anything but easy.
The International Judo Federation (IJF) dictates that dual-nationality athletes who want to represent a new national federation must undergo a three-year period without participating for their former country in IJF competition.
It meant Deguchi effectively spent a significant portion of her career in the wilderness, watching on as past and future teammates vied for medals around the world.
“We did not see it as a renouncing of Japan, but a confidence in our program and co