WESTFIELD, NJ – Ten years ago, when she was just 12, Helen Delpopolo traveled to Japan to compete in the 2005 sumo world championships as the youngest athlete to win a national title in the sport.
The Westfield native lost that year in the first round of competition due to lack of experience and muscle mass, she said. But this August Delpopolo will return to Japan for the 2015 world championships in Osaka, and the middleweight sumo national champion's goal is to be crowned the first female sumo world champion from the United States.
Watch as he forces her opponent out of the ring at the 2015 US Sumo Nationals:
Delpopolo has set up a GoFundMe site to raise money for the trip to worlds.
“My goal is for $4,500,” Delpopolo said. “The flight alone is $1,700.”
On her way to Osaka, Delpopolo hopes to stop first in California, where sumo is more popular than along the East coast, and spend some time working out at a training center in Los Angeles.
Once at worlds, she expects to face opponents from Brazil, Russia, Ukraine and several Asian countries. Through her site, Delpopolo has raised about $100 to date to cover expenses for her quest.
Her efforts attracted the support of Dan Weiniger, a Westfield father and business owner who underwent heart surgery in February. Weiniger was able to outfit his home with a generator thanks to a groundswell of support on a GoFundMe site set up by a friend.
“Way to go Helen! Good luck!!” he wrote on Delpopolo's site.
Delpopolo decided to come out of retirement and take part in this year’s nationals in honor of her longtime coach and mentor, Yoshisada Yonezuka, who passed away in October.
Yonezuka was the 1988 and 1992 Olympic judo team coach and the owner of Cranford Judo Karate Center which Delpopolo said has “been like a second home to me since I was three years old.” Earlier this month, Delpopolo lost another mentor when Ernesto Labate of the judo karate club died.
Delpopolo started sumo at 12. She has also competed on national and international stages in judo and has experience in wrestling.
“What I love about the sport is how technical it is,” she said. “When most people think about sumo [they] think about overweight Japanese man slapping each other. When in reality when you go to compete at the worlds there's over 40 countries participating. Most wrestlers are in phenomenal shape.”
As the owner of All Service Irrigation LLC, Delpopolo gets plenty of opportunities for conditioning through digging trenches and breaking through concrete.
“It’s a very physically demanding job, especially for a woman, but it really helps with my muscle tone,” she said.
Delpopolo, a 2011 graduate of Westfield High School, credits her parents Dominick and Joyce Delpopolo for her successes in the ring and in life. The couple adopted her from an orphanage in Montenegro when she was seven months old. She and her brother, Nick, who was adopted from the same orphanage four years earlier and later competed in the Olympics in judo, grew up on Hazel Avenue.
“I love them with all my heart. All I want to do is make my family proud,” she said.