The reward for four years of training, traveling and competing is in sight for Kyle Vashkulat and Nick Delpopolo.
The Jason Morris Judo Center athletes, both graduates of Burnt Hills-Ballston lake High School, represent two-thirds of the U.S. men’s judo team that will compete in the London Olympics, which open Friday.
“Just getting there is an accomplishment,” said Vashkulat, the youngest member of the U.S. judo contingent — and the 100 kg field — who turns 22 on Tuesday. “It’s not an easy path. Sometimes, it seems you’re living out of a suitcase for a month at a time.”
“This isn’t for normal people. You have to do abnormal things to get abnormal success,” said Delpopolo, 23, the team’s 73 kg representative.
“Wanting the Olympics is a pipe dream,” said Morris, a four-time Olympian and 1992 silver medalist who helped put the finishing touches on both athletes after they relocated to train with him. “You have to learn what it takes. A lot of them fade off. They came, they had those ideas in their heads, and they stuck with it.”
Both have been at or near the top of their weight divisions for the better part of the Olympic qualifying cycle.
Vashkulat had accumulated enough rankings points to secure his Olympic spot in late April.
“It was such a weight lifted. Any time you set a goal of making the Olympic team, it’s so huge,” said Vashkulat, who was born in the Ukraine, and came to the Capital Region from Pennsylvania to train with Morris as a teenager. “There are so many athletes who want to get to that point, and when you do make it, it’s just the greatest feeling in the world.”
Delpopolo needed more time to lock up his spot, beating Michael Eldred in a May winner-take-all fight-off after they both had accumulated enough points to rank in the top 22 in the world at 73 kg.
Eldred had won 12 of their 20 previous meetings, but overcoming the odds has become a Delpopolo speciality.
Born in an orphanage in Montenegro, he was adopted by a family in New Jersey before his second birthday. He gravitated to martial arts, and first moved to this area at 12 to train with Morris. He moved back to New Jersey, winning national junior tournaments, and came back to JMJC in his bid to make this Olympic team.
“When they made this rule that if there were two guys in the top 22, there would be a fight-off, I knew him [Eldred] and I were going to do it,” said Delpopolo, who competes one week from Monday. “I knew I was going to qualify, and I knew he was going to qualify.
“So, in hindsight, I feel like I went the extra mile, so I maybe I extra deserved it.”
Like any world-class athlete, both judokas are confident that they
belong in the Olympic tournament, and hope to show well.
“You want that gold, but it’s not an easy path,” said Vashkulat, who competes on Aug. 3. “But as much as I might think of myself as a baby or whatever, experience-wise, I am the best at what I do. It’s rewarding to know you’ve earned the right to represent the USA.”
“You have to be relentless,” said Delpopolo, who filmed a background piece last week at NBC’s New York studios. “Nothing can faze you. You have to have tunnel vision. I believe that’s what separates the guys that medal from the guys that don’t.”
Both JMJC athletes plan on making the Olympic push at least once more.
“My division is a division where you can go a lot longer than the lighter guys, who are relying on speed and agility,” said Vashkulat. “At heavyweight, it’s more strength. I’ve been fighting grown men. I’m not hitting my peak yet.”
“No doubt. Two [more Olympics] if I can. Three if I can,” said Delpopolo. “As long as my body can take it.”