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By JOHN OTIS Nick Delpopolo of the United States judo team.
June 11, 2012, 9:00 AM
Last month, all that stood between Nick Delpopolo and the Olympics was an hour of power, the name coined for a fight-off that would determine who earned the last spot on the United States judo team.
And Delpopolo’s opponent that day was one he’d been fighting since he was 17 years old: Michael Eldred.
“On most occasions after the referee says, ‘Hajime,’ we would slap hands out of respect for each other before engaging,” Delpopolo said, using the Japanese word for “start.” “We did not do this at the trials, though.”
The hour of power took place at the Miami World Cup, and it was the first time in USA Judo history that such a face-off was necessary. A judo rule mandates that if two players in the same weight division are ranked in the top 22 in the world, as determined by the International Judo Federation, they must fight for the last, coveted spot. The other four members of the judo team had already been determined at the Pan American Championships.
Delpopolo, currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, has been in the top 16 in the world for the last three years; Eldred ranks 26th. But Eldred was bumped up into the top 22 after the elimination of double countries, which are nations that have more than one competitor in the top 22. Because only one athlete per nation is allowed to compete in each weight division, Eldred’s standing was adjusting accordingly. Delpopolo and Eldred are in the 73-kilogram (161-pound) division.
“It was so hard for both of us to qualify from where we started four years ago,” Delpopolo said.
In 2009, which was Delpopolo’s first year as a senior athlete, his world ranking was No. 99. “We didn’t expect either of us, let alone both of us, to qualify,” he said. “So it kind of stunk because one of us wasn’t going to make it.”
And while on paper the showdown was weighted in Delpopolo’s favor — if he won the first match he advanced automatically, whereas a loss would force the two to compete in a separate best-of-three face-off — he knew anything could happen.
“We’ve been on the same track for a while and meeting a lot in the finals,” said Delpopolo, 23, who noted that Eldred was three years older. “I’m not sure if I’m in my prime, but I know he was.”
When the hour of power was under way, Delpopolo was beaten in the first round. Three more rounds followed. The fourth and final round of the day ended when Delpopolo countered Eldred’s attack, earning an ippon (the highest score achievable) and claiming victory.
“I felt like I really earned it,” he said. “I did something no one else did. I qualified and also fought another guy off for my spot.”
For Delpopolo, the day was the second best of his life. He said his best day was one he didn’t even have memories of: the day he was adopted from an impoverished town in his country of birth, Montenegro, when he was 1½ years old.
“I don’t know where I’d be today if not for my adoption,” he said. “So to go to the Olympics … I get to represent the U.S., my family, myself and all the people who helped me.”
Since Delpopolo clinched his spot, thoughts of the London Games haven’t left his mind.
“With every practice, or lift, or run, I go into a 10-minute routine where I think of my goals, where I want to be in the future, in the sport, or life in general, and I think about what it takes to get there, and then I go out and try to do it,” he said. “Don’t think about the fact that you want to win — everybody wants to win — but how are you going to win?”
It’s an important question to consider given that no American has ever gone home with an Olympic gold medal in judo.
“People who know the sport have been telling me: ‘You are a dark horse, but not a total dark horse. You’ve beaten a lot of the guys; you can do really something,’” Delpopolo said. “It almost insults me. Of course I can, but am I going to go do it? Am I going to execute? If I prepare well, and just fight well, I think I can medal. If not, I can lose in the first round.”