LIMA, PERU — Westfield native Nick Delpopolo did what Olympic Judokas do and fought back. After losing his first round match in the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, Delpopolo recently won his next two bouts to win the bronze medal in the men’s middleweight division.

The 17-day multi-sport event ended on Aug. 11 with a spirited closing ceremony in front of a capacity crowd of 50,000 people at Lima’s National Stadium. There were nearly 7,000 athletes from 41 competing countries.  For Delpopolo, who has competed in two Olympics, this was his first Pan American Games.

“It’s a bittersweet performance,” said Delpopolo, 30, who attended Edison Middle School before going on to Bergen Catholic High School. “You always want to win gold. However, I injured my knee in March and only fought one match since then and it was a brief encounter in which I lost. I have a lot of competition rust to shake off.

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“I felt pumped after the bronze medal match, especially after losing such an ugly first encounter,” he continued. “It shows me that I still belong out here and have a lot of resilience and experience to go off of.”

With his bronze medal secured, Delpopolo continues to write a comeback story that seemed beyond improbable when he was suddenly sent home before the end of the 2012 games in London for a positive marijuana test. He said that he had accidentally eaten a pot brownie.

Delpopolo had already posted a respectable 7th place finish in London when the test results were made public. He had his wins stripped from the record books and embarrassed in front of the world. For someone who was a gold medal hopeful before the games and a star on the rise for USA judo, Delpopolo, 21 at the time, found himself on the outside of the sport looking in.

“The London experience is something I’ll still never ever forget despite the glaring asterisk,” said Delpopolo. “It was my first Olympic team and I fought well placing 7th. Coming home early and fighting my way back shaped who I am today as an athlete, a person and most importantly mentor to others.”

Delpopolo did make it all the way back, again placing 7th in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. This time his finish was official. Still, he had to fight an intense wave of negativity directed at him along the entire training period leading up to the games, resulting from his failed drug test and the stigma attached to it. He was unsure if he wanted to continue competing for USA Judo after all he had been through. He mulled over becoming a professional MMA fighter, but with the lure of a third Olympics in front of him, his focus is now squarely on 2020 in Japan.

“The road to success isn’t always upwards as much as we would like it to be,” said Delpopolo. “There are some bumps and bruises to be had. I know I have it in me to go back to the Olympics and take a medal. That’s been my lifelong goal.”

For Delpopolo, judo is his passion. He was a wrestling star in high school before a serious knee injury send him back to the sport he began as young boy at the Cranford Judo Karate Center. 

“The Olympic dream was instilled in me from the day I walked in the door,” said Delpopolo.

As he looks ahead to the next year of intense training leading up to all the qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics, his major obstacles are not only his opponents but the necessary funding to practice, travel and compete. A family friend has set up a GoFundMe page so that people can contribute. To reach it, click here.

“US judo has given me next to no financial aid this Olympic cycle,” said Delpopolo, who will be competing in August in the World Judo Championships in Tokyo. “They do nothing to fundraise and have a lot of issues with athlete development — or lack thereof — because of this.”

Delpopolo’s determination is grounded in the support he gets from his girlfriend of 11 years,  Carrie Chandler, a five-time national champion in the sport. Not only does she help him with his judo moves but she does all the behind the scenes work from managing his social media to booking his travel plans.

“She’s my rock, she’s my best friend,” said Delpopolo.

His parents, Dominick and Joyce Delpopolo, who still live in Westfield along with his sister Helen Delpopolo, have always been there for him throughout his entire judo journey. He trains out of the Fort Worth Judo Club in Texas now and is reliant on donors and sponsors to compete. He credits the Fort Worth Judo Club with giving him the foundation needed to win the bronze medal in Lima, especially after losing his first match.

“Things actually haven’t gone better for me in a long time,” said Delpopolo. “You are only as strong as the people you surround yourself with and I could not have done this without their efforts.”

A frequent contributor to TAPinto Westfield, Mike Cohen is the founder and director of Throwback Sports (a sports and educational program for children of all abilities) and the sports editor of Education Update. He can be reached at throwbacksports@verizon.net