For Nick Delpopolo, the journey in becoming an Olympian began in Montenegro, went through New Jersey, up to New York and back down to New Jersey again. Through all the hard work and dedication, Nick will soon reach his destination. Next stop: London.
1. It may be premature to talk about, but come August you may be the first American to win gold in Judo at the Olympic Games. How much have you thought about the possibility? How is it fueling you as a competitor heading into London?
“This has been my motivation from the start. I grew up practicing Judo at the CJKC (Cranford Judo Karate Center) which is owned and operated by ’88 and ’92 Olympic US Head Coach, Yoshisada Yonezuka. The club is flooded with pictures, articles, trophies, memorabilia, etc. from the Olympic Games. “Yone” told me when I was young that no one had ever won Olympic gold and my goal was set. I have been dreaming about it since I was 7 years old.”
2. You were adopted as a toddler from Montenegro. How much does it mean to you to be able to represent the United States this summer in London?
“It means everything. I idealize the American dream and the fact that anyone can be accepted here and supported by the entire country. Every medal I win for this country is my way of giving back to this great Nation.”
3. What emotions does competing in Judo bring about in you? What keeps you so passionate about the sport?
“I’m a pretty quiet and reserved guy everywhere except on the Judo mat. With every big win or big loss, I become very emotional and everything just spills out of me. It’s not something that I can control; I just get overcome with emotion in the moment. After my biggest wins you can find me in a heap on the floor crying tears of joy, and after my losses I’m in that same heap on the floor overcome with anguish. I was reading Henry Cejudo’s book, “American Victory,” and there is a chapter in there where he is explaining how a loss is like a death and I can’t find the words to say it any better.”
4. Is there a moment in your career that you would credit the most with your qualification for London?
“I went to this tiny tournament in Panama at the beginning of 2010. It was hardly worth any points, you didn’t win money by placing and it was a self-funded trip. The Brazilian team decided to send all their #1 ranked men to it as a tune up event for them. The draw came out two days before my competition day and I drew the Brazilian in my first round. I remember the other American’s kept asking me if I saw my draw and apologizing to me that I drew such a stud first round. It became pretty clear to me that no one expected me to beat this guy.”
“There was a U.S. coach there from Florida named Evelio Garcia. Evelio could be out of a movie, he is Cuban by birth and speaks with such a heavy accent that most people can’t understand him. He is in his sixties and always walks around chewing a cigar (no one has ever seen him smoking the cigar, because his wife, Cookie, won’t let him) and he is notorious for throwing a chair during a match. He has one of the longest running Dojo’s in Florida and has been producing National Champions and Olympians for years. So he saunters over to me and goes, “Oye Neek, you saw your draw?” I nodded and he didn’t mince any words he just blurts out “Everyone thinks you’re going to lose.” I nodded. Then he says, “What do you think?” I said, “I think I can win” and he said “I KNOW you can win, ju need to show everybody what ju can do!”
“The next day he was coaching me against the Brazilian and it was a total barn burner of a match. There was no score at the end of regulation and we went into overtime. The first exchange of overtime I slammed him with one of my favorite throws and I see Evelio jump out of the coach’s chair with the #1 sign pointing up in the air and he’s just looking at me screaming, “I TOLD JUUUU!!!! I TOLD JU!” In that moment I became a different player. I embraced the opportunity to show everyone what I could do and I went on to have the most successful summer tour of my career. I won two World Cups, took silver and a bronze at two more, I won the U.S. Open, went 3-1 at my first World Championships and won bronze at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. By years end I had jumped from #99 in the World to #16 in the world and I have been steadily moving up ever since.”
5. Reflect a bit on the match that got you here. You had faced Michael Eldred a number of times prior to the match that earned you a berth in London. How much did your previous matches against Eldred help you? What were the turning points in the match?
“Michael and I have literally fought 20 times, he is three or four years older than I and we have been fighting since I just turned 17. To tell you the truth I think we were both tight. We both knew what was on the line and it was a battle of like, one little mistake. It was like we were both on the edge of our seats the whole time. We know each other so well, it was like, ‘Here comes that; here comes this.’ You could tell that we fought 20 times. It was like, Oh, he knows this, or I know that. In our final match he was winning with about a minute and a half to go and he made a tiny mistake where he came in for a standing attack and I was able to step right over it and counter him for the win. It was the first time in our 20 matches that particular thing happened and it would probably never happen again.”
6. Is representing the US in the Olympic Games the highest accomplishment for an athlete?
“Absolutely. The Olympic Games are the biggest sporting event on the planet and everyone is representing something bigger than themselves.”
7. In your eyes, as a top competitor in your sport heading into London, is winning gold simply a goal, or is it the only option?
“Your mind can only reach the limits that you set. If you are satisfied with being an Olympian and just being a part of the experience then that’s where your limitations are set. I know I have the ability to throw anyone in the world and that means that I can win the tournament. That’s where my sights are set.”
8. Aside from competition, what are you most looking forward to in terms of the experience of being an Olympian?
“I can’t wait to walk in the Opening Ceremonies. I’m going to film the entire thing, I will probably get emotional. In that moment everyone in the room shares the same goals and I can’t wait to feel that sense of camaraderie.”
9. Throughout your career, did the accomplishment of participating in the Olympic Games always seem attainable?
“I have been lucky my whole life to have trained with the best coaches in the U.S. I have worked with Yone Yonesuka, Steve and Irwin Cohen, Jason Morris, Jimmy Pedro and Evelio Garcia who have all been Olympic coaches or Olympians themselves. The environment in all of their places is that competing in the Olympics is the goal, so I have never known anything else to dream about.”
10. Is there a special camaraderie that exists between fellow Olympians? If any member of Team USA were to win a medal, would it be as if you won it as well?
“That’s the best part about being an Olympian. Going back to what I said before, regardless of what sport or what country we are from, we’re all going into this with the exact same goals and dreams and going even further than that we have all grown up with similar life styles and have all been living our lives the same way. I will be beaming with joy for an Olympian who fulfills a dream but I have to be selfish and want to win my own medal.”
We will continue our 2012 Team USA / London Olympics Interview Series all month leading up to the start of the Games. Find all the interviews and more Team USA coverage on the DoubleGSports.com Team USA page.