Man-to-Man with USA Judo Champion and Future Olympian, Nick Delpopolo

Cameron Conaway picks Nick Delpopolo’s brain on judo, friendship and leading a balanced life.

Judo became an Olympic sport for men in the 1964 Games in Tokyo. While the US has yet to capture Olympic gold, buzz is growing about what twenty-two year old Nick Delpopolo might do this July in London.

The story begins with rejection. Nick’s adoptive parents originally wanted to adopt a child in America, but because Nick’s father Dominick was in his mid-fifties and his mother Joyce was in her forties they were deemed unfit to raise a child. As our system rejected them, they tried another. In 1991, they found 21-month old Nick (born Petra Perovic) in a small dilapidated orphanage in Niksic, Montenegro. Dirt floors and wall-to-wall cribs filled with the howls of hungry babies, one of which a few years later would be on the mats in New Jersey with Yoshisada “Yone” Yonezuka, the coach who produced Olympic bronze medalist Mike Swain.

As the countdown on Nick’s website shows, he is 150 days away from competing in the Olympics. I interrupted his two-a-day training regimen to chat with him about his training, personal setbacks, thoughts on mixed martial arts and what it means to be a good man. Let’s jump right in.

What is a typical day in the life of an elite athlete just a half-year away from their big moment?

First, I want to say that I am extremely fortunate and truly blessed that my parents adopted me. I thank God everyday for this. A typical day in the life consists of 4-6 hours of training, half of it being on the mat practicing judo. The other part of my day is devoted to everyday chores, relaxing, and mental training. My girlfriend and I spend a good hour or two each day on the computer and phone networking to try to gain support and help towards the Olympics. {Note: Nick’s training demands are brutal and for him to compete at this level he can’t also hold down a job. He is currently seeking sponsors.} Everyday is the same in that myself and everyone involved on “my team” work hard towards the one goal, the Olympics.

Nick, what sustains you? Many athletes get burnt out or bored, especially those like yourself that have been training since a young age. What has kept you so consistent and passionate over the years?

The dream I have had in my head since I was 7 years old and watched the 1996 Olympic Games. Jimmy Pedro won the Bronze Medal and I adamantly believed that one day this could be me. Another thing that has kept me consistent in judo is the fact that I love it and know it defines me. The sport has given me traits ranging from athletic ability, flexibility and coordination to character, tenacity and discipline.

During the end of your sophomore wrestling season in high school your foot got caught in- between two wrestling mats during practice and you tore almost every ligament in your knee. You had to have a major reconstructive surgery, but it seemed that this was even more of a mental injury than a physical one. Shortly after the surgery you began smoking cigarettes and developing a bit of a bad boy reputation. For all your success, you are also admirably open about the moments where you started to head down the wrong path. How did you right the ship?

I got my life back in the right direction because I recognized myself becoming “just another brick in the wall” and wasn’t satisfied with that. I knew I was put on this earth to do athletics, primarily judo, and I knew I needed to heal properly and get back to competition form ASAP. I rehabbed hard everyday, lifted upper body every other day and on my off days would watch the best judokas in the world on this newer website called YouTube circa 2005. This tenacity and determination is what I believe got me back on the mat in less than five months. I would tell athletes to do the same and they will come back hungrier, stronger and mentally tougher post-injury.

What would it mean for USA Judo if you won gold in London? What would it mean for the USA in general?

If I were to win Gold at the Olympic Games it would be the biggest success for US Judo since its beginning. This is partly because no American, let alone North American, has ever won the Gold. I think the sport would gain significant notoriety and popularity if this were to happen. This is one of the reasons I would like to complete this feat. I know if judo got the chance it deserved, more people would begin to see that it is something worth practicing and watching. As for the USA in general, I think they would be on board with judo if it had an Olympic Champion to show for because we all like sports, especially sports in which we dominate.

Speaking of martial arts as sports, what are your thoughts on mixed martial arts? Do you have any favorite fighters and could you see yourself competing someday?

MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world and it isn’t losing any speed. I believe MMA is appealing mostly because people enjoy seeing other people beat the crap out of each other. However, it is also appealing because it is diverse and dynamic. Many variables are in a fight and anything can happen, so while there might be favorites there always seems to be an upset. That’s why guys like Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva deserve all of the credit in the world because they have stayed so consistent for so long. This may seem elitist but this is what makes them my favorite fighters. Other fighters I like are all former judoka such as Hidehiko Yoshida and Yoshihiro Akiyama. After judo, whenever that might be, I will consider fighting MMA depending on how my body is holding up and what is left in the tank. I do believe I can do well in the sport simply because I have a good base of how to properly train, prepare, and take care of my body but I would have a lot of work to do initially (i.e. striking, ground game, etc.).

MMA legend Frank Shamrock is a major supporter of you. What is the nature of this relationship and how did it come together?

Frank is my mentor/manager. This for me is a rare and special opportunity because growing up and watching MMA with my dad, Frank was one of our favorite fighters. I was in awe of his consistency and versatility as a fighter. Frank and I came together via my girlfriend. We had just started my new website, nickdelpopolo.com, and she reached out to Frank and told him about me and he took an interest in me. Then he became part of my team and the rest is history!

Final question. In your eyes, what makes you a good man?

What I believe makes me a good man is that I am considerate of other people’s feelings. I can understand and empathize when others are going through a hard patch or are having a bad day. I like to think I am a good person to confide in and I try my best to find a way to help anyone, stranger or not, in need. Others have given and helped me so much throughout my life that I think it is only right to do the same.

Connect with and support Nick on his Facebook Page.

—Photo West Point Public Affairs/Flickr

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About Cameron Conaway

Cameron Conaway is a former MMA fighter, an award-winning poet and the 2014 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. He is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet, Bonemeal: Poems, Until You Make the Shore and Malaria, Poems. Conaway is also on the Editorial Board at Slavery Today. Follow him on Google+ and on Twitter: @CameronConaway.

Comments

  1. His name was Petar Petrovic, not Petra. Great article!

  2. This is your year, Nick!

    Great article–dedicated athletes in the (for now) “not sexy” sports deserve exposure like this.

    It looks like the US has a great shot at judo gold in London and it’ll be geat to see judoka in McDonald’s ads and on Wheaties boxes….and to see the dojo across the country filling up with “I want to be like Nick (Kayla etc)” kids!

    • Dear Bill,

      What an amazing sight that would be, eh? Judo not just as something the local Y offers but as a sport respected and cherished on a large scale! I’ve watched many videos of elite-level judokas competing and it’s a shame how few people there are in the stands. Here’s to a change! :)

      Thanks so much for posting,

      ~Cameron

  3. Nick has the nicest Judo of any man in the United States. Big Throws, frontways backways or sideways. Haven’t seen an arsenal like his since Mike Swain in the late ’80’s.

  4. Dear James,

    Thanks for posting! I totally agree. I’ve been watching tons of his videos. He’s got a smoothness to him that seems incredibly rare. But what I like is that the smoothness is also intense. He’s got fire inside of him!

    ~Cameron

  5. Nick won his first match of London 2012 and has advanced to the Round of 16. Next match will be in about ten minutes. Follow him on Twitter: @NickForGold

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