WESTFILED, NJ — This is not the comeback story that leaves everyone feeling good.
For Westfield native Nick Delpopolo, getting back to a second Olympics in Rio as a judo fighter after he was sent home during the 2012 games in London for a positive marijuana test still leaves him feeling unappreciated by USA Judo — and questioning a possible move to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
In London, his competitive seventh-place finish was immediately stripped from the record books after his positive drug test for what he said was inadvertently eating a pot brownie at a family party. Despite the large-scale embarrassment internationally that he caused himself and to the proud judo community, Delpopolo was determined not to let his Olympic career end this way.
After four years of tough training, he once again proved in Rio that he is one of the best judo fighters in the world. This time there was no scandal and the only drama occurred on the mats as Delpololo was fighting for a chance at a bronze medal. He lost to Miklos Ungvari of Hungary in the repechage (or second-chance) bracket and again finished seventh in the 73 Kg weight class.
Delpopolo’s issues with USA Judo began when he was sent home early from London. In a sport that dates back to 1882 in Japan and has deep in its roots the practice of mental discipline, accidently eating a pot brownie and thus bringing shame to the sport simply did not agree with the culture of USA Judo and the larger judo community. A person close to USA Judo who was unauthorized to speak but did so on the condition of anonymity said that officials and coaches of USA Judo did not believe that Delpopolo deserved another chance to fight in the Olympics after London.
“You can always start over and give yourself a second chance no matter how things get,” Delpopolo said. “I tried my best to make it a teachable moment. Unfortunately, I have many problems within the judo organization internally during the last four years. Mainly they pretty much acted like I don’t exist.”
To make matters even more frustrating, what doesn’t exist now are the same tests for marijuana that led to the positive outcome for Delpopolo in 2012. The World Anti Doping Agency dramatically changed the rules to the degree that with today’s standards, Delpopolo would not have tested positive and he would have been able to avoid all of what he’s had to endure.
Delpopolo and other top-tier judo fighters in the United States depend on USA Judo for financial support in terms of booking clinics to give demonstrations, selling t-shirts and posters and generally being the public relations arm to create opportunities for the athletes during training. For Delpopolo, who is currently in a funding dispute with USA Judo, feeling disconnected from the organization has been a hardship.
“In the lead up to Rio and since I have been here I have done press for a lot of national publications like USA Today, NBC, Cosmopolitan, The New York Times and pretty much none of the articles have been promoted internally or shared within the US Judo community. It makes me feel really upset and bullied,” Delpopolo said.
“I think I am a good person and the national media has received me so well, I don’t understand why I have to continue to be ostracized within my own community,” he added.
With what has transpired regarding Delpololo’s shaky relationship with USA Judo and his need to make more money, he is weighing his options in terms of another run at the Olympics for the 2020 games in Toyko or going to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to become a MMA fighter. Delpopolo's camp believes that the move to UFC with its huge platform will lead to other opportunities.
“My parents are super against me going to the UFC, so I would only do it with their permission,” said Delpopolo, talking about Dominick and Joyce Delpololo of Westfield, who adopted Nick as a baby from an orphanage in Montenegro. “I am going to take my time and make the right decision.”
Despite all that was going on around him with the politics of the sport, his experience in Rio was a positive one. In addition to his solid showing on the mats, Delpololo said he enjoyed watching other Olympic events, meeting new people and interacting with the other athletes, especially the tennis and basketball players. As a big tennis fan, he said that he ran into Venus Williams in a hotel lobby and they spoke for about a half hour about tennis and judo.
As for the immediate future, Delpopolo will be getting shoulder surgery in the next couple of months for a torn labrum that he’s been fighting with since sustaining the injury in a tournament in Korea in November. He would also like to arrange another trip to Montenegro to meet his biological father, he said, which he is admittedly nervous about. And personally, he’s looking forward to spending time with his long-time girlfriend and publicist Carrie Chandler (a five-time national champion in the sport) in Hawaii.
“She has been my rock over the last four years along with me family,” Delpololo said.
A frequent 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