Photo Credit: Doral Family Journal
It is roughly 1,074 miles from Niksic, Montenegro, to London.
By plane, it’s just a short hop, nothing special or arduous for a 21st-century traveler.
For Nick Delpopolo, however, the journey has taken 23 years.
It’s been a lifetime of zigs and zags, starting with a detour to New Jersey more than 20 years ago that forever changed his life and culminating with an emotional victory in Miami this month that earned his ticket to the London 2012 Olympic Games, pending nomination from the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Delpopolo, adopted from a Montenegro orphanage as a toddler, became the last American man to secure a spot on the U.S. Olympic judo team.
His victory in a grueling, best-of-three fight-off at the U.S. Open at the Doral Resort in Miami left Delpopolo, 23, overcome with emotion. Shortly after the victory over longtime rival Michael Eldred, Delpopolo said he found a secluded spot and “just broke down.”
“I just can’t believe this,” Delpopolo said in an interview just a few days after clinching his nomination to the U.S. Olympic Team. “I was really happy because this is 17, 18, 19 years in the making. This is really cool for me.”
To be able to share the moment with his parents, Dominic and Joyce, who made the trip to Miami and experienced a hugfest after his victory, made it all the sweeter, he said. Their love, support and impact on his life are almost too great to put into words.
His parents traveled to Montenegro to meet him when he was just 21 months old. They subsequently adopted him and brought him home to Westfield, N.J. In doing so, Delpopolo said they gave him a life far greater than the one he would have had.
“To me, that’s the first day in my whole entire life that I’m most thankful for, is that day (of adoption),” he said. “Followed by (his victory in Miami). Its significance is they gave me a chance to be an American and I love this country and I love being here and I’m so thankful for everything. I have the chance to represent this country that’s given me so much.
“That’s what’s so special for me about it. I get to prove I’m an American. I wasn’t born here but you guys have given me so much and I’m proud of it.”
Coming to America
When the Delpopolos first visited the small orphanage in Niksic, they found a toddler named Petra Perovic living in poverty. After several trips from New Jersey, the Delpopolos were able to adopt Petra — whom they named Nick — and bring him to the United States.
At the age of 5, Dominic enrolled Nick in a karate class. Nick recalls he didn’t much like karate, but he found the judo class afterward to be fascinating. He couldn’t take his eyes off the judokas.
“I saw these guys getting thrown and all this dynamic throwing and choking and arm barring and all sorts of stuff and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do,’ ” he recalled. “It was one-on-one combat. It looked so cool …
“As soon as I started doing it, it was, ‘I like this.’ The very first day I got to throw. Throws and falls. It was love at first sight for sure. I wanted to do it for the rest of my life.”
By age 12, Delpopolo was begging his parents to be allowed to move to the Jason Morris Judo Center in Glenville, N.Y., to live and study under Morris, a four-time U.S. Olympian and silver medalist at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games.
It was the beginning of a long-term relationship between Delpopolo and Morris, who for 11 years has served as a coach and mentor.
Delpopolo lived and studied with Morris for about a year and a half, then returned to New Jersey. Eventually he returned to train with Morris at age 17 where, over a three-year period, he became one of the nation’s top judokas, winning 22 national titles. At age 19, he qualified for the Olympic Trials, but lost in the semifinals.
Since 2008, Delpopolo steadily has climbed the U.S. judo ladder, earning the No. 1 ranking in his 73-kg weight class and a No. 16 ranking worldwide.
As he looks back on his rise in judo and the chance he now has to compete against the world’s best in the Olympic Games — where no American has won a gold medal — Delpopolo says it was his parents’ decision to allow him to leave home and study under Morris that was key.
“It was cool of my parents to let me go there so young because they knew I could be so good,” he said.
“They knew I was passionate about it. I had to fight them tooth and nail to go there that early. That’s absurd, you know, it’s not normal,” he adds with a laugh. “They adopt me and 12 year later here I am going into this, with this guy, to train and live there.
“They weren’t so enthusiastic about it at the time, but now looking back on it, I don’t think you made a mistake there. It was a good option. It allowed me to pursue judo at a really high level.”
Morris, who coached Delpopolo in Miami and will be working with him as he prepares for the Olympic Games, recalls Delpopolo as a quiet, hard-working kid when he first came to him. He was an athlete with potential, like so many others who study in his program, but there was no guarantee he’d become something special.
He knew the youngster had talent, but he also knew that to reach the pinnacle, there would be years of physical and mental challenges.
“I had hopes for him,” Morris said. “But there was never any, ‘Oh for sure this kid’s going to make the (Olympic) team.’ ”
He always knew, though, that Delpopolo had the desire.
“He’s always been a hard worker,” Morris said. “I think he generally likes the grind, the battle of getting ready and then going out there and doing his thing, so that’s obviously a big plus.”
Today, Morris said he’s very proud of Delpopolo (as well as Kyle Vashkulat, another of his students who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team). He looks at Delpopolo and sees a very technically sound judoka who’s made great strides.
“I know it looks like a quick rise, but it’s really been slow, steady progress,” Morris said. “He trains properly, he does the right things technically. He’s getting older, stronger, more understanding of what it takes to be a pro.”
Whether Delpopolo’s talent will translate into a medal in London can’t be predicted, however.
Though Morris said “we train to win” and added that “I’m betting no one’s going to want to play Nick in the Olympics,” the Games can be fickle. One bad match-up, one mistake, one moment of weakness can mean an early exit.
“If you’re not on, things can be over in a hurry,” Morris said.
Last Man Standing
To earn the final berth on the U.S. Olympic Team, Delpopolo had to survive a dramatic, four-match duel with Eldred.
Both Delpopolo and Eldred had achieved Olympic qualifier status, but the U.S. team could only take one in the 73-kg class. So the two had to settle it on the mat in what USA Judo called the “Hour of Power” face-off.
If Delpopolo, ranked No. 1, could beat Eldred, No. 2, he would earn the spot outright. Eldred, however, won to set up a best-of-three fight-off. Delpopolo won the first and Eldred won the second, setting up a winner-take-all match.
Delpopolo won when he took down Eldred for an ippon when Eldred attempted a sumi gaeshi, a “sacrifice throw.”
Just like that, Delpopolo was going to the Games.
He said the match was an intense “war” between two opponents who were incredibly familiar with one another. Entering the Miami matchup, the two had fought 16 times, with Delpopolo trailing 6-10 in the series. In many other crucial match-ups, Eldred had won.
Now 8-12 vs. Eldred, Delpopolo is relieved to have won their biggest match.
“To tell you the truth I think we were both tight,” Delpopolo said. “We both knew what was on the line and it was a battle of like, one little mistake. It was like we were both on the edge of our seats the whole time. We know each other so well, it was like, ‘Here comes that; here comes this.’ You could tell that we fought 20 times. It was like, ‘Oh, he knows this, or I know that.’ ”
Before heading to London, Delpopolo will compete and train in Russia, the Czech Republic and Brazil. He will either be training with Morris, or staying in touch with him via phone, email and Skype. It’s a time for sharpening skills and getting ready to compete on the sport’s biggest stage.
“We’ll go to London and see what kind of damage we can do,” Delpopolo said. “Push as hard as we can. In the Olympics, anything can happen and I feel like if I can just win a couple of matches and get going, once you win two or three matches, you can win the whole tournament. Why not?”
Added Morris: “This is about as good as it gets. Obviously the only thing better now is an Olympic medal.”