WESTFIELD, NJ — Nick Delpopolo made his mark on the 2012 Olympics, but not the way he had hoped to. The judo fighter and Westfield native would have had a respectful seventh place finish in London in his 73kg class, but after a routine drug test after his final match, the International Olympic Committee said that Delpopolo tested positive for cannabis — a doping violation. He was immediately disqualified, stripped of his wins and sent home before the closing ceremonies.
Delpopolo has said that he unintentionally ate something before the games that had been baked with marijuana. The incident created a flurry of negative attention from the national media that Delpopolo has been trying to shake ever since.
“The kid had so many obstacles thrown his way,” said his dad, Dominick Delpopolo. “It’s a wonder he still has his head on straight.”
Described by his coach and family as a fighter, Delpopolo didn’t give up. Against seemingly unsurmountable odds, he heads to Rio later this month to fight in the 73kg class. He is one of only three men to make this year’s USA squad.
“It was hard, but you can’t spend too much time thinking about it,” said Delpopolo, 27. “A lot of people would say, ‘The heck with this, I’m done.’ But I love judo too much and competing too much. I was young at the time.’”
After serving an embarrassing three-month competition ban back in 2012, he had to begin the process of overcoming the negative perception of those within the judo community. While his close friends and personal coaches have been able to move on, winning over those within USA Judo and countless fans has not been easy, he said.
“It was the initial anxiety, almost fear, of facing people when I decided to compete again for another Olympics,” Delpopolo said. “But once I did it, then it was, ‘I don’t really care about what people think. Forget about them. The only people I care about are the people who care for me.’”
He added “It’s to prove to people that I can compete with the best and I don’t want that to define my legacy. I want an Olympic medal to define my legacy.”
When the Olympics kick off on Aug. 5, Delpopolo will be a part of a very strong field in the 73 kg class. Considered among the most competitive division in men’s judo at the games, the roughly 30 participants from around the world were required to have a top 22 world ranking over the last four years in order to qualify.
“You look at the numbers going into any tournament,” said Delpopolo. “My weight, and the weight below me, have by far the most competitors and then there’s everyone else. My category is made up of the average male height and weight. It’s the perfect mix of speed, power, athleticism, technique and ability.”
Delpopolo’s drive was evident early in life. Born in Montenegro and placed in an orphanage as a baby, he was adopted at 18 months old by Dominick and Joyce Delpopolo of Westfield. He attended McKinely Elementary School and Edison Intermediate School in Westfield, where he continued to develop academically and athletically.
“My passion for sports grew immensely in Westfield,” said Delpopolo. “We had a very good PAL program in football, soccer and wrestling, the three sports I played as a child besides judo. There was a lot of depth in each, especially the wrestling program.”
At the Cranford Judo Karate Center during his middle school years, Delpololo studied under the late Yoshisada Yonezuka, the 1988 and 1992 USA Olympic head coach. (Yonezuka died in 2014.)
“The Olympic dream was instilled in me from the day I walked in the door,” Delpololo said.
He went on to become a star wrestler at Bergen Catholic for his first two years of high school. A serious knee injury derailed his wrestling career and steered him full-time into his real passion of judo.
Delpopolo convinced his parents to let him finish high school in upstate New York, where he would live and train at the Jason Morris Judo Center under Morris, a four-time U.S. Olympian and a silver medalist in 1992.
Since then, “It’s been judo all the time,” he said.
Next month in Rio, it will be more than judo all the time. He will have his chance in front of the world to make up for his miscue in 2012 and fight for the Olympic medal he has been working toward since he was a child. But for Delpopolo, it’s more than just the pursuit of a medal that motivates him.
“I do something I love every day because I get to train and compete all across the world,” he said. “You can’t put a price on that.”
A frequent contributor to TAP into Westfield, Mike Cohen is the founder/director of Throwback Sports (a sports program for children of all abilities) and the sports editor of Education Update. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org