RIO DE JANEIRO — When Westfield native Nick Delpopolo walked through the tunnel at Maracana Stadium on Friday night as a member of the USA Judo team in front of some 80,000 people and billions more watching around the world, it was a mental image that he had been carrying around for the last four years.

“I can’t really say there a lot of moments in my life that would take my breath away,” Delpopolo said. “But walking through the tunnel during the opening ceremonies is indescribable. I wish that there were some way that I can let people go into my mind.”

Delpopolo’s first match is scheduled  for Monday at 10:24 a.m. But this isn't his first Olympics.

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In 2012, Delpopolo was also a member of USA Judo team in the London Games. In that Olympics, he walked next to the stars of USA Basketball in the opening ceremonies so that he could get the most television exposure. While he could be visibly seen entering the games, his exit was out a backdoor, after he was expelled from the games for testing positive for cannabis.

Delpopolo has said that he unintentionally ate a pot brownie before the games at a family party, resulting in the positive test and then the out-of-control negative attention that followed almost drove him out of the sport. But that is not the way he wanted to end his judo career, especially after beating the world No. 3 at the time, Dirk Van Tichelt of Belgium. He would have had an impressive 7th place finish and be in a position to build on this success for Rio. Instead he was forced to leave London before the closing ceremonies with his judo life in shambles. 

Seeking a fresh start, Delpopolo moved to South Florida from Upstate New York, where he had been living and training. He started working with judo trainer Evelio Garcia of the Budokan Judo Club in Opa-locka Florida, who reinfused him with the confidence that he had always known.

“Once I started competing again in 2013, I knew, unless serious injury or illness, that I would get back to this juncture,” Delpopolo said. “It’s a four-year grind. It’s not easy. There is a sense of relief to a degree.  I made the post- season so to speak. Now it’s time to start to go into another gear. It’s exciting.”

His parents, Dominick and Joyce Delpopolo, who still live in Westfield, are in Rio along with his sister, Helen, and his girlfriend, Carrie Chandler (a five-time national champion in the sport).  They will be cheering him on in the 73kg class and continue to provide him with the unwavering support that allowed him to be back for his second chance at an Olympic medal.

“My dream is to win a medal at the Olympics,” said Delpololo. “I know it’s a possibility because the last time I was there, I was so close.”

Delpopolo’s match on Monday will be against Ahmed Goumar of Niger. Click here for live streaming details.

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 throwbacksports@verizon.net