23 November 2023



Little less then 250 days left until the opening day of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games and our judoka are competing week in and week out to fulfil their dreams. This week, we chattered with Paris Grand Slam 2023 winner, Ai TSUNODA. This focused, determined and rather inimitable judoka shared a little insight of many influences on her way to her first summer games. Ai is also someone who once had a dream…

When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming an Olympic Champion. But that is what it was… a dream. Now, I don’t want to dream, I want to live reality. So, I focus on living and improving day by day. My parents don’t influence me in this matter, nor do they give any pressure to me. They are my pillar, they are here whatever I do.

Ai started judo at the age of 3, well, physically should say becuase the truth is she has already been doing judo in her mother’s tummy. When your parents are well established judoka themselves, this is almost inevitable. Ai began practicing judo at her parents’ own private club in Lleida, Spain. 

They opened the Dojo Lleida the year I was born, and I was around the mat all day long from my first days, so it was almost natural for me to start doing Judo as soon as I got grown up enough.

Ai carries Japanese [from her dad] and French [from her mom] roots blended into Spanish culture as she was born there. Whilst judo was an unconscious choice, as a child, her parents ensured she attends at different sporting activities too to support her speed, balance, and agility. It’s time to dive in… pros and cons of having your parents as your coaches? 

There are definitely almost only pros. For all his expertise of course, for his skills in teaching individually and adapting to each person, and for his staying in touch with real competition world. I feel he teaches me how to get stronger with Judo in every situation, with no space for half-hearted techniques or attitude. And as my father, he knows me perfectly and understands instantly when I am weakening or trying to escape from difficulties and is able to make me go further.

As per my mother being in the chair, we’ve been doing Judo together with my father from the very beginning, so we know each other very well on the mat too and need only a few words to communicate during the competitions. She also keeps learning Judo with my father, so it’s really the same line, no contradictions. We all know at which point we are at a given moment, and what we want to do. My parents never stopped doing judo. I always do randori with both of them. I must say that the ones I throw the most are my parents. They give me everything. My father always says that if he’s not able to throw me anymore, he still can get thrown. He gives his body for me to learn. I do the competition’s warming up with my mum. Many people have said that I shouldn’t do this hard with my mum, that I should be more careful. But my mother is very strong and it’s with all the respect I have for her that I try to give my best. That is what creates this bond that we have.

The Spanish judoka admits regretting a lot of her fights but remains forever thankful for the learning opportunities these contests have provided for her and absolutely cannot imagine doing anything else but judo right now. 

It’s a great adventure, I am really happy to live. Full of learnings, full of emotions, full of possibilities for evolution. There are tough moments of course, but it’s all very real and I feel truly alive going through all this process.

Her top memory goes back to February when she won the Paris Grand Slam. Why? 

Because it’s my first gold medal in the senior world tour and because it’s Paris.

Perhaps in 250 days, she can recall another gold from Paris? The medal will look slightly different with a couple of rings on it and conceivably at higher value. So what does it take to reach your dream and became an Olympic Champion? 

I really don’t know what it takes to become an Olympic Champion: I really do train as much and as good as I can, trying to get stronger and stronger every day; I try to evolve when I face difficulties, to find solutions and ways to improve constantly my Judo; I have the full support of my parents as professionals, of the Spanish Judo Federation, and also of Tokai University Judo where I train now (in particular of Tsukada Maki); I of course try to win every competition I take part at. I am very aware of this all, yet at the same time, I also know very well that, to speak only about my weight category which I know better, there are numerous opponents doing all possible efforts to win too. Each one in their own way, but for sure very strongly and very seriously. So, it remains a sort of mystery sometimes in victory…

On that topic, how often do you think about the Olympics and what is the first word comes to mind regarding Paris 2024?

The first word is “Future”, as in “not yet” meaning.

However, to be honest, I do not spend much time thinking about the Olympics. I think about it when the subject comes out in a discussion. It’s not that I’m trying to avoid it, it’s just that I have other important things to think about in the present time.

In any case, it’s not a voyage to Paris for me, but hopefully a voyage passing by Paris!

Ai with the precious Paris gold. © Gabi Juan

Ai’s nickname is Ojizou and it is connected to a Japanese statue which according to her peers, resembles Ai’s appearance. The 21-year-old judoka has been living in Japan past six months, enduring the challenges Japanese language brings to her. How much of the Japanese philosophy do you carry with you in your life, if at all? 

It’s more my family background than Japanese background: until 6 months ago, I lived, trained, and studied in Spain. Of course, I came to Japan sometimes to visit my family and I also trained there then, but it was only for short periods of time. Indeed, now that I am struggling to study at the University all in Japanese language, I do understand I don’t carry that much of Japanese background! To talk more seriously, my grandfather taught Judo to my father, and we are in close contact. I send him videos of my fights and we all talk together often so that we can share his point of view too.

Since in Japan, I have been training at Tokai University Judo, under the direction of Tsukada Maki. I train mainly with the women team, but I am also allowed to train twice a week with the lighter categories of men team. We are in strong connection with my parents’ teaching, so or my father or my mother normally comes to Japan on a monthly/bimonthly basis. I also come back regularly to Spain to train with them, especially when preparing for competitions in Europe. I know it’s very uncommon to train this way in Japan, so I am grateful to Tsukada Maki for making it possible and finding ways to fit in the group and in the team too.

How about your French and Spanish roots?

I am not sure whether it’s Spanish culture or the conditions I have, but I do really appreciate the freedom I have in making my own choices. I don’t feel excessive pressure on me, I can train and fight in my way with my timing. Of course, all of us have to care much because this means we have to accept all directly: if we improve it’s in big part thanks to us; if we fail it’s entirely because of us and cannot reject part of the responsibility on anyone or anything else. That’s a great push to keep thinking and learning.

As per France, all my mom’s family is in France, and they always support me. I also speak and read French very fluently. I must say my mom changed a lot living together with my father, so they have passed me down, somehow, their own vision of life based on their own experiences, more than a culture itself. Both are somehow unfit in their origin countries, and have been living in Spain for almost 25 years. All this means I have quite a peculiar start too, and go finding my own way.

Ai’s unique, generous, and down to earth personality reflects in her response when asked about her dreams and goals. 

I want to become a good person.

An answer hard to come by nowadays… and as per her 5-10 years planning, she is unsure of the specifics yet certain to stay within the gentle way. Ai enjoys reading, singing and taking long walks especially at night-time. At last, is there a chance for family time where judo is off topic?

We are lucky that we all do Judo together. So, Judo is always here somehow!

The family. © Ai Tsunoda


Weight category -70kg 
HometownLleida, Spain
Favourite techniqueSeoi-nage
Study / Qualifications Tokai University, Department of Budo
Biggest lesson learned so farDo it now
MottoBe today, better than yesterday.
DishJapanese food.
BeveragesSweat fizzy drinks.
Animal I have a dog and cats at my home.
SongEvery breath you take – The Police
BookDune – Frank Herbert
MovieRocky I, II & III
Day of the week (why?)
Trait (favourite qualities about yourself) 
Top 5 bucket list 

Author: Szandra Szogedi