Source from Japanese article by Takao Matsumoto

Tsunoda Natsumi, a 30-year-old judoka, has recently made headlines with her outstanding performance in the world of judo. Her journey to success has been filled with unconventional choices and personal growth, leading her to achieve her dream of representing Japan in the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics. In this interview, we delve into her remarkable judo career and the decisions that propelled her to the top.

Portrait photo © Di Feliciantonio Emanuele

In May 2023, a new record was set in the world of judo. Tsunoda Natsumi, competing in the women’s 48kg category, clinched her third consecutive victory at the World Championships. This remarkable feat made her the third Japanese female judoka, following in the footsteps of Ryoko Tani and Noriko Anno, to achieve such a milestone. What’s even more impressive is that she won all 15 matches in these three tournaments by ippon, showcasing her dominance and strength.

However, Tsunoda’s journey to success has been anything but ordinary, making her a unique figure in many aspects. At the age of 30, she can be considered a late bloomer, as her judo career began to shine in her late twenties. How did this exceptional champion overcome hurdles and reach her current position? Let’s take a closer look at her background.

Antalya Grand Slam 2024, -48 kg, ABUZHAKYNOVA Abiba, GANBAATAR Narantsetseg, TSUNODA Natsumi, ERSIN Sila © Di Feliciantonio Emanuele

Tsunoda was born in 1992 in Yachiyo City, Chiba Prefecture. Influenced by her father, who ran a chiropractic clinic and practiced judo, she started her judo journey at the Yachiyo Police Station when she was in the second grade of elementary school. After graduating from Yachiyo High School, she enrolled at Tokyo Gakugei University, a national university. She later transferred to Ryotokuji University (currently known as SBC Shonan Beauty Clinic), where she continues her judo career.

In the world of judo, it is common for athletes who later represent Japan at major international competitions to gain recognition by winning national tournaments during their middle and high school years. However, Tsunoda participated in national tournaments during her school days without achieving victory in the major competitions. This led her to contemplate quitting judo.

“When I entered high school, I wanted to become stronger, but I couldn’t win tournaments. I thought about quitting, wondering if my efforts were in vain. I even considered becoming a pastry chef and attending a vocational school,” Tsunoda revealed in a previous interview. However, her high school advisor opposed her decision, which led her to enroll at Tokyo Gakugei University and continue pursuing judo. Although the university was not known for its judo program at the time, Tsunoda saw it as an opportunity.

“Since it was a national university, I thought it could work. There were no female students in my class, and the training was not as intense,” she recalled. The atmosphere was more relaxed, as she described in previous interviews. However, that environment became a turning point in her career.

During her time at Tokyo Gakugei University, Tsunoda discovered a renewed passion for judo. She began to understand the intricacies of the sport and the joy it brought her. The change in her perspective and the supportive environment she found at the university played a vital role in her development as an athlete.

“I started to like judo. The training atmosphere was such that we were encouraged to take initiative in our practice. But when I met Iteya Misaki Sensei, I started thinking differently and began practicing differently. Above all, he accepted me wholeheartedly, even with my somewhat unconventional style of judo. It became more and more interesting, and I became able to train properly.”

Tsunoda excelled in ground techniques and joint locks rather than standing techniques. In Japan, there is a tendency to emphasize scoring an ippon with standing techniques, so she was in a different position. However, she was never asked to make adjustments.

As her performance improved, she decided to continue practicing judo after graduation. In her first year as a working adult, she had knee surgery and took a break, but it was in her second year, 2016, that she blossomed. She won the Kodokan Cup and also became the champion at the Tokyo Grand Slam.

Grand Slam Tokyo 2016, -52 kg, FINAL JPN TSUNODA vs JPN ABE © Sabau Gabriela

 In 2017, she was selected for the World Championships for the first time and won a silver medal in her debut tournament. Her reaction to the results also symbolized her mindset at the time.

“I won a silver medal at the World Championships, and I felt a strong sense of anxiety like, ‘What should I do?’ I had become a player who looked strong on the outside but wasn’t really that strong. I used to be a player who couldn’t even win the Kodokan Cup, but now I won it, I won the Grand Slam, and I won a silver medal at the World Championships. I felt like my actual ability hadn’t caught up to that level, so I didn’t have the desire to aim for bigger stages. I was just focused on doing what was in front of me to the best of my ability.”

During that time, she started to be seen as one of the top players in the 52 kg category, but there were competitors in the same weight class who achieved even greater success. Shishime Ai (SBC Shonan Beauty Clinic) won the gold medal at the World Championships where Tsunoda won silver, and Abe Uta was also emerging.

“I felt anxious about competing alongside them, being on the same stage as them. I felt like I shouldn’t be standing alongside them. I thought I had to work hard to somehow measure up.”

Grand Slam Tokyo 2016, -52 kg, TATSUKAWA Rina, SHISHIME Ai, TSUNODA Natsumi, ABE Uta © Sabau Gabriela

Soon, the Tokyo Olympics approached.

“As I got closer to a position where I could qualify, the desire to compete grew stronger.”

Amidst the fierce competition among the three of them, Tsunoda couldn’t achieve results that would set her apart.

In the final of the Grand Slam Osaka in December 2018, she lost to Abe, who had been undefeated in three matches. The following year, she defeated Shishime in the final of the All-Japan Selection Weight Category Championships and won consecutive titles, but she did not qualify for the World Championships. The thought of losing after winning three consecutive World Championships was truly disheartening.

At that time, Tsunoda made a decision. She decided to change weight classes from the 52 kg category, where she had been competing, to the 48 kg category. She thought to herself, “I’ve been left behind, but maybe there’s a possibility in the 48 kg category if I think about the Olympics.”

She fully transitioned to the 48 kg category starting from the Kodokan Cup in November 2019 and won the championship. However, she didn’t have much time to accumulate achievements. In February 2020, the Tokyo Olympics representatives were announced, and Tsunoda was selected as a substitute.

Tel Aviv Grand Prix 2020, -48 kg, FINAL JPN TSUNODA vs FRA BOUKLI ©Sabau Gabriela

“I was thinking of retiring after the Tokyo Olympics.”

What changed her mind was the World Championships held in June, just before the Tokyo Olympics. With no Olympic representatives participating, she competed as the representative of the 48 kg category and won the championship.

“I thought it would be a waste to quit after this, so I decided to do my best as far as I could go.”

Since then, she has won three consecutive World Championships and stood proudly at the top of the world rankings.

“I wouldn’t say I made a firm determination, but I felt that if I lost next time, it would really be the end. And there are also many young players, so if I lose, I don’t think I can come back. That’s how I feel.”

World Judo Championships Seniors Hungary 2021, -48 kg, FIGUEROA Julia, MUNKHBAT Urantsetseg, TSUNODA Natsumi, KOGA Wakana © Di Feliciantonio Emanuele

Looking back on her career, Tsunoda reflects and says:

“When I was in college, I didn’t do a lot of traditional techniques like seoi nage (shoulder throw), and I wasn’t really criticized for my own style. It was only after I entered the national team and started competing internationally that I realized the importance of having a diverse skill set. I had to adapt and improve my standing techniques to compete at the highest level.”

Tsunoda recognized the need to expand her repertoire and worked diligently to enhance her standing techniques. She focused on refining her seoi nage and other throws, aiming for a more well-rounded approach to judo.

Her dedication paid off as she continued to achieve remarkable results. She won the gold medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in the women’s 48 kg category, bringing glory to herself and her country. Her victory was a testament to her perseverance, adaptability, and unwavering determination.

Tsunoda’s success story serves as an inspiration to aspiring judo practitioners, demonstrating the power of resilience and the ability to overcome challenges. She has proven that with passion, hard work, and a strong mindset, one can achieve greatness in their chosen field.