Nick Delpopolo’s story is so well-told on his personal website that we’ve edited it down for length but left his time in New Jersey basically intact.
From NickDelpopolo.com: Nick Delpopolo (born Petra Perovic) spent the first years of his life in small orphanage in Niksic, Montenegro. He lived amidst poverty in an old disheveled building with deteriorating walls and floors made of dirt. A married couple from the United States, Dominic and Joyce Delpopolo, came to the orphanage when Nick was 21 months old, a visit that would forever change his life. The couple from Westfield wanted to adopt a young child and were unable to do so in America (Dominic was in his mid-fifties and Joyce in her forties). Dominic’s family was from Serbia, so they decided to start the adoption process there. The Delpopolo’s traveled back and forth to Serbia many times before they were taken to the small orphanage in Montenegro where they adopted Nick. They returned several years later and adopted a second child, Helen.
When Nick was 5 years old his father took him to Cranford Judo and Karate Center and signed him up for Judo classes. The Dojo was run by 1988 and 1992 Olympic Judo Coach Yoshisada “Yone” Yonezuka. Yone produced the very first male World Champion from the United States, Mike Swain (who now owns Swain Mats). Not only did Nick quickly excel in Judo, according to Yone, Nick was a natural. He became one of the best student’s Yone had ever seen and rarely ever lost a match.
When Nick was 8 years old he began wrestling in the Police athletic League (PAL). A year later he won the New Jersey Kids State Wrestling Championships. Nick then went on to medal in the Middle School Wrestling National Championships. Although Nick was an exceptional wrestler, Judo was Nick’s passion. His family encouraged him to follow his heart and resume his Judo training. At the age of 12 Nick’s parents sent him to upstate New York to live and train with 1992 Olympic Silver Medalist Jason Morris. He graduated from middle school in New York and lived with Jason for nearly 2 years before his Mom, who dearly missed her son, asked him to come home.
When Nick returned home and started high school he went back to wrestling in hopes to earn a college scholarship, as there were no scholarships offered in Judo. Although it had been several years since he had wrestled, Nick was quickly recruited by Bergen Catholic High School. As a freshman Nick easily dominated the seniors on the team in his weight class (130lbs and 135lbs). Although Nick was undeniably one of their top wrestlers, the coaches did not want a Freshman to wrestle Varsity in those weight classes. As a result, they decided to bump Nick up to Varsity level in the 140lb weight class.
Nick easily dominated the 140lb weight class as well by throwing his opponents to mat using his Judo moves. He quickly gained recognition and was touted one of their most promising up-and-coming wrestlers. Nick competed in seven matches at the “Beast of the East” tournament as a freshman. Upon entering his sophomore year, Nick began receiving “letters of interest” from school’s with top wrestling programs such as Lehigh and UPenn. During the end of his sophomore wrestling season Nick suffered a career altering injury. His foot got caught in- between two wrestling mats during practice and he tore almost every ligament in his knee. As a result, Nick had to have a major reconstructive surgery, a consequence that put an end to his wrestling career.
Nick had a long road of recovery ahead of him. After nearly a year, Nick began making poor choices and was gaining a reputation of a “bad boy” in high school. He was caught smoking cigarettes and began hanging out with a bad crowd. As a result Nick’s father decided to send him back to the Jason Morris Judo Center in upstate New York. Nick quickly got his life back on track and turned his focus, once again, to the sport that he loved.
The year he returned to New York, Nick was as barely 17 and still had three more years of Junior eligibility in Judo. Nick, determined to resurrect his Judo career, was unstoppable. In 2006, Nick made the Junior World Team by defeating heavily favored Bobby Lee, the #1 Junior in the U.S. at the time. He defeated Lee in a sudden death battle and is historically one of the biggest upsets in Junior Judo history. He went on to dominate the Junior rankings for the next 2 years and he made his second Junior World Team in 2008. Although he had a 3 year hiatus, Nick finished his Junior Judo career with 22 Junior National titles.
While Nick was still a Junior he began climbing the U.S. Men’s roster. At just 19 years old, Nick qualified for the 2008 Olympic Trials in Las Vegas, NV. He was the youngest competitor in the division. Nick advanced to the Semi-Finals and lost a controversial match to Ryan Reser, who was the #1 ranked seed at the trials. Although Nick received a penalty early in the match he went on to throw Reser twice. Unfortunately, neither score was called, therefore Nick lost on the penalty. Reser went on to represent the U.S. in Beijing.
At the end of 2008, Nick’s last year of Junior Eligibility, he moved to Boston to train under 1999 World Champion Jimmy Pedro, the most winning player in U.S. Judo history. Nick spent most of 2009 making the transition from Junior to Senior athlete. In October of 2009, Nick won the “Rendez-Vous” tournament in Canada and overtook Michael Eldred as the #1 ranked Senior in the U.S. When Nick clinched the #1 spot he had only been competing for less than a year as a Senior competitor. He went on to defend his #1 ranking three times in 2010. 2010 was a career defining year for Nick. He rose from being ranked #99 in the World to #16 in the World by years end. Nick moved up in the world rankings an incredible 83 spots and finished the year as the top medal winner in his division on the World Tour.
In September of 2010, Nick competed in his first (Senior) World Championships in Tokyo, reaching the 4th round after 3 ippons (instant wins). During the competition, Nick knocked out the #8 seed in the first round, a competitor who had previously defeated him five consecutive times. Nick finished 9th at the Worlds in a pool of 83 competitors. No American male had reached that far since his coach Jimmy Pedro won the Worlds in 1999.
Following his World Championship debut in Tokyo, Nick was invited to compete in the “World Masters Tournament”, which took place in Azerbaijan in January of this year. The World Masters is only reserved for the top 16 players in the world. Nick went in as the #16 seed. He lost by Yuko (small score) to the #1 ranked player in the World from Korea, who went on to throw everyone else for ippon on his way to winning the title.
In 2011 Nick fell into a bit of a slump and although he remained top 16 in the World he had wanted to be doing better than he was. After a hard look at his situation Nick admitted that he had fell out of sync with himself and he needed a drastic change if he wanted to keep his Olympic dreams alive. He moved back to upstate, NY to reconnect with his long time coach Jason Morris. One month after returning to his roots Delpopolo flew to England and became the first American man ever to win the Liverpool World Cup. 7 months after that Nick flew to Miami for the “Hour of Power” an Olympic Trials between him and long time rival Michael Eldred. Eldred had kept his ranking inside of the top 22 in the World which forced the two athletes to fight off for the Olympic spot. Nick won the trials in an epic battle with Eldred and credits Jason Morris for turning his career around.
Nick Delpopolo is well on his way to achieving his dream of becoming an Olympic champion and is poised to bring home the gold for USA Judo in 2012. By doing so, he will forever etch his name in Judo history by becoming the first American Judo player to ever bring home an Olympic gold medal. Delpopolo is ready to show the world that with focus and determination, anyone can achieve their dreams.
We can watch Nick competing in the 73kg class on July 30th on NBC. Go Nick!
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