Once-disgraced Delpopolo doesn’t win medal but earns redemption

American Nicholas Delpopolo, takes down Niger's Ahmed Goumar. Delpopolo, who was sent home from the 2012 Olympics for a positive drug test, finished seventh in Rio.
American Nicholas Delpopolo, takes down Niger's Ahmed Goumar. Delpopolo, who was sent home from the 2012 Olympics for a positive drug test, finished seventh in Rio. AP

Facing some of the top judokas in the world at the Olympics on Monday was not nearly as daunting for Nick Delpopolo as the shame he faced four years ago, when he received word he was being sent home from the London Olympics after testing positive for marijuana.

Delpopolo, who had finished seventh at the 2012 Games, said he unknowingly ate a pot-laced brownie at a party preceding the Olympics, and called it “the biggest mistake of my life.”

He headed home to New Jersey from London feeling horrible guilt for the shame he caused his country, his sport, and his parents, Dominic and Joyce, who adopted him as a baby from an orphanage in Montenegro, in the former Yugoslavia.

At the lowest point of his life, when many people shunned him, one of his mentors, Evelio Garcia, reached out to him and invited him to move to Miami and get a fresh start at his Budokan gym in Hialeah. Delpopolo packed up his belongings and his five cats and moved into an un-air-conditioned Opa Locka efficiency with his girlfriend, Carrie Chandler, a former judo national champion.

They slept on a mattress on the floor at the beginning, and have since moved into a nicer apartment in Fort Lauderdale.

Monday afternoon, Delpopolo was back on the Olympic mats in the 73-kilogram division, seeking redemption. Chandler was in the stands, cheering like crazy.

“After the London fiasco, a lot of people wanted nothing to do with me, and the easiest thing would have been to quit the sport and fade away, but I decided to face the shame head on,” Delpopolo, 27, said. “I want people to remember me for great competitor I was, what I gave for the sport of judo, and the person I am. Not the stupid mistake that I made. No reason that should define the rest of my life. A lot of haters thought I’d never get back, but four years later, here I am.”

He was determined to finish better than seventh this time. It didn’t happen. He won his first two fights, lost the quarterfinal, and finished seventh again, after losing in the repechage (consolation) round to Miklos Ungvari of Hungary. Shohei Ono of Japan won the gold, Rustam Orujov of Azerbaijan the silver and Lasha Shavdatuashvili of Georgia the bronze.

Although he was disappointed he didn’t reach his goal, Delpopolo took time to dissect the fight and was introspective afterward.

“I couldn’t generate any offense because he’s very good gripping, very good strategical player,” Delpopolo said. “He wasn’t better, but he was smarter. If I played differently, I can win that fight. When I get my hands on him, I have to attack right away and generate offense so he feels a threat instead of just standing there waiting for the perfect opportunity.

“Everyone’s good here. The guys who make the podium are the ones who take risks, the confident guys. I’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”

Seventh again is not what he wanted. But he seemed to accept it because this time, he leaves the Olympics with dignity.

“Before the tournament, I said if I get anything better than seventh, I’d be proud. But the way I fought, I think I can tip my hat on that. This is the top of the mountain. If I can compete at this level going through what I’ve gone through, facing all that adversity and challenges, I think I can do it again.”

But he plans to take some time off to pursue college, and coach kids in Hialeah. If he does come back, he’d consider moving up a weight category because he struggled to make the weight cut in recent competitions, including here. He said Sunday’s weight cut “hurt.” His weight fluctuates between 73 and 81 kilograms (160-178 pounds).

After breakfast on Sunday, he was 3.2 kilos over (7 pounds). “My body fat’s low, so making that cut was rough. It takes a toll on you.”

Delpopolo said he will stick around to watch the rest of the judo competition, and also hopes to get to wrestling, basketball, gymnastics and tennis, one of his favorite sports.

“[Novak] Djokovic is my favorite player and [Juan Martin] DelPotro is my second favorite and they played first round, so that was sad,” he said. “I won’t get to see Djokovic in singles, maybe doubles. I gotta do everything I didn’t do in London. I’m acting like this was my first time at the Olympics.”