In September 2020, Kelita Zupancic was making one of the most difficult decisions of her life: giving up her dream of competing in her third Olympic Games to stay with her husband and eventually start a family. Almost a year later, and now a mother, she watched her former teammates make Canadian judo history with little Grace, her daughter.
Unlike during London and Rio, where she competed in the under 70kg category, Kelita Zupancic lived these Olympics in front of her television with her daughter and her husband Travis Stevens, Olympic silver medallist five years ago in the under 81kg category for the United States. A very different experience without a doubt, but one for which she was ready.
“Personally, it was a little more difficult on the day of the 70kg tournament, but I had mentally prepared myself after making my decision and felt at peace with the situation. Plus, I got to watch the competition with my little one, so it’s pretty hard to be sad!” she said in her usual enthusiasm.
Furthermore, the Ontarian was able to celebrate the achievements of her good friends Jessica Klimkait (-57 kg) and Catherine Beauchemin-Pinard (-63 kg), who achieved a first for Canadian judo by winning two Olympic medals during the same Games.
“It was absolutely fantastic, and I was very proud of my former teammates,” she continues. We are all very close. I worked hard and travelled all over the place with them for the past few years. Despite the distance, I still felt connected to these medals.”
But above all, the end of the Tokyo Olympic cycle saw Zupancic close a predominant chapter in her life. Without any regret or bitterness, she now looks to the future with a sense of accomplishment.
“To go to Tokyo, I would have had to leave my husband for several months and that’s a sacrifice I couldn’t make. I know I wouldn’t have been happy and as we saw in Tokyo with gymnast Simone Biles, you can’t win without being in the best physical and mental shape of your life,” she said.
“I did everything I could as an athlete, and I am at peace with my decision. I am happy! ”
A balanced life
In sport, as in everyday life, there are always many challenges. At least that’s what Kelita Zupancic continues to observe since Grace was born on June 30th. So, along with Travis, she continues to adjust to her new lifestyle, greatly facilitated by her extensive experience as an athlete.
“I would say mom’s life is pretty easy compared to the life of a high-level athlete. Pregnancy and motherhood are very difficult! However, with all the experience I had gained as a judoka, I was really ready. Sport has helped me a lot for this new stage in my life and I knew how to prepare myself mentally and physically,” she explains, adding that the key to success lies in a balanced life.
For Zupancic, this balance is reflected in her ability to be a dedicated mother, while also expressing her passion through Judo Fanatics, a business she owns with her husband in Boston. The 31-year-old Canadian has never stopped going to the dojo daily to teach the next generation of athletes.
“Travis and I have dedicated our entire lives to judo and it is very important to us. Even during the pregnancy, I continued every day, she says. I was very careful and in the end I was no longer doing demonstrations or coaching, but I was still there. It’s part of the athletic career and the Olympic adventure. We find the balance over time and we can find ways to keep it.”
Zupnacic is fortunate enough to be teaching under the watchful eyes of a very new student recently. In her stroller on the edge of the tatami or with her mother in a baby carrier, Grace learns to familiarize herself with the environment in which her parents have, and continue to have, so much fun.
“Grace’s birth brought us even closer! Everything is even more beautiful since she arrived. We waited a long time before we could start a family and it really is a dream come true for us! We spend a lot of time together as a family and we have a lot of fun.”
Of course, sport has given Kelita Zupancic the chance to follow her dreams as an athlete and prepare for her new life as a mother. And now motherhood allows her to be an even more fulfilled and happy woman.
“I had imagined that all my life, to be able to achieve my Olympic dream and meet the person I was going to be able to have a family with. I got everything I wanted and that’s why I’m so happy today,” she concludes.
Redaction: Mathieu Fontaine [email protected]