"He’ll always be known as the guy who flunked the drug test for pot brownies."
That’s what a columnist in a local New Jersey paper wrote after I got sent home from the 2012 London Olympics. I’d trained for years in the sport of judo, and finally my rigorous training had paid off: I made it to my first Olympic Games, where I walked among the best athletes in the world during the opening ceremony.
But my satisfaction was short-lived — I was the first of nine competitors disqualified for doping in London. The International Olympic Committee discovered that I tested positive for marijuana.
How could I let this happen? My vice was baked goods — a few nights before I left for the games, a party was thrown in my honor. It was a carefree, fun environment with people I thought I could trust. It featured a slew of pot brownies, and I ate one, unaware that it was laced with cannabis.
The Olympic Committee didn’t care that I’d eaten the brownie without knowing what was in it. All that mattered was that I’d failed the test, and as a result I needed to leave London immediately. Headlines on CNN, ESPN, the Daily News, and countless other sites blared the news of my downfall.
Criticism from internet trolls stung, but hate from close friends hurt the most
I lost many sponsors. One was a local athletic club run by people I’d known almost my whole life. Friends, foes, and internet trolls jeered at me for my stupidity. Fellow judokas spread false rumors about me. One even said they saw me doing hard drugs — crystal meth or heroin — at a party. I was frustrated. How did naysayers have the right to take one mistake and spin it into a bigger lie, a smear campaign?
But mass hate wasn’t the worst part of leaving London. When I arrived back in the States, the games still had several days to go. I sulked on my couch and watched the tournament I had been competing in a few days earlier. I couldn’t believe it. I was just there, representing the United States as one of the top 10 judokas in the world.
Insiders and fans of the sport speculated on whether I would end my career. And so did I. I had no idea if I could mount a comeback. I worried that the columnist's words were true — that I'd always be remembered as the guy who got kicked out of the Olympics because of a pot brownie.
The situation got bigger than I thought it would; people I considered close friends stopped communicating with me and posted nasty things about me online. I couldn’t believe people would turn on me so easily. I would never treat someone else that way.
The disappointment and shame I brought to the judo team and my parents stung.
Once I was training at a local gym when a woman came up to me, belligerent, screaming that I made her sick to her stomach.
I understand the anger — a lot of people live vicariously through the careers of famous athletes. I own up to my mistake and realize it was a stupid decision.
Still, no one knows how much defeat hurts better than me. I blew my chance. I was the one getting all the backlash. I had my dreams stripped away from me — and I knew the rules going in.
I eventually became desensitized to the hate. My circle grew smaller. I now only talk to about 10 or 12 people on a consistent basis. I am confident my friends and family truly care about me.
Rio is my chance at redemption
One day one of the few coaches who chose not to abandon me asked a question that no one had asked me following my failure: Are you okay?
His concern had an impact on me; he assured me that I could compete again, even make it to the Olympics in the next four years, as long as I was surrounded by a team of people who cared about me and protected me.
For the past four years, I’ve been training six days a week, focused on competing in the Rio Olympics.
I recovered from my downfall well, eventually becoming a Pan American champion. I ranked in the top five judokas in the world by 2013. I still had enough money to get by, despite losing many sponsors. I didn’t expect that, and I’m sure neither did my detractors.
I’m not afraid of mistakenly eating another pot brownie and flunking another drug test. I trust the people around me, but I don’t open myself up to new people easily. I steer clear of parties and watch what I eat and drink.
And all the people who kicked me when I was down started sending me their well wishes as I regained success. People are fickle with their favor.
I haven’t forgotten about their abandonment, but I’m not going to cut them off. I will shake their hand, smile, make small talk, and move on.
When I get up in the morning before workouts, I will watch a sports show like First Take where the hosts rag on the hardships of some fallen athlete. I stop myself before I rush to pass judgment — I’ve been in the same position.
One thing I’ve learned from my setbacks is that defeat does not define you. Move on to thinking about how you’re going to overcome detractors; think of setbacks as challenges and let your journey to redemption define you.
I can’t wait for Rio. I’m going to show everyone I’m not just the guy who ate the pot brownie. I’m a world-class judoka — my work on the mat will speak for itself.
Nick Delpopolo is a judoka on Team USA in the 2016 Olympics. The Westfield, New Jersey, native spends his free time teaching judo to young athletes and catching up on Game of Thrones. The die-hard New York Giants fan owns five cats, four of which are rescued.