Warren grad Papadakis keeps fighting in quest to grab Olympic spot
Little fazes Nefeli Papadakis, a fierce athlete who's traveled solo on airplanes since she was a teenager as part of a journey that has seen her fight judo opponents all over the globe.
Then one day early last month the Gurnee resident and USA National Judo Team member found herself in Istanbul, Turkey, an ocean away from home, wondering where to go next and what to do next. The sport she loves and has been her life since she was a little girl was, like every sport worldwide, being interrupted by a novel virus.
With the International Judo Federation canceling its remaining Olympic-qualifying tournaments, her dream of becoming an Olympian was being threatened.
That, more than anything, made the powerful Papadakis tremble like no opponent wearing a judogi could.
On March 24, the International Olympic Committee postponed the 2020 Games, which were scheduled for late July in Tokyo, to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two weeks earlier, the IJF had announced postponement of its remaining qualifying competitions, which were scheduled for the next two months.
The local judoka viewed the Olympics postponement news as flipping ... good, actually.
"I was relieved, mostly, because they've never postponed an Olympics before; they've only canceled them," said Papadakis, 5 feet 5, 21 and a 2017 graduate of Warren. "I was really scared that they would cancel. My U.S. teammates and all of my friends internationally -- they're from Greece, they're from Croatia, they're from Spain -- were just so on edge because they were like, 'Did we just do all this (training and preparation) for four years just for it to be canceled?' That was my biggest fear the whole time. I was very anxious and stressed about it."
The month of March was hardly fun and games for Papadakis. Ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for the under 78 kg division and 27th in the world according to the IJF, she was supposed to compete in a tournament in Morocco. With only five remaining competitions, it was "crunchtime," Papadakis says, for Olympic qualification. She was directly qualified but needed to maintain her status to secure an Olympic roster spot.
She landed at Istanbul Airport for a connecting flight to Greece and received a call from one of her coaches, who told her the tournament in Morocco was canceled. She decided to continue on to Greece, where she has family, because her USA team had another tournament in Russia after the one in Morocco.
"I waited it out like 10 days, and then they ended up canceling the Russia tournament last-minute, as well," Papadakis said. "I was like, 'I'm going to get a ticket home because there's no reason for me to stay here anymore and things are looking like they're getting bad.' "
She went to sleep that night, and her parents called at 3 a.m.
"They're like, 'There's a travel ban. You need to get home,' " Papadakis said. "They were freaking me out. It was a mess trying to get home."
Getting home wasn't going to be easy. With hundreds of people wanting to get back across the ocean, ticket prices jumped dramatically overnight. A one-way ticket soared to $3,000, says Papadakis, who thanks to USA Judo was able to purchase a significantly lower-priced ticket.
"I'm very thankful I was able to get home," Papadakis said. "You just couldn't find tickets home."
Home has its benefits. Papadakis' family used to own a dojo in Waukegan and while it recently closed, all the equipment was in storage. Papadakis says she carried 10 tatamis (judo mats) into her family's basement and cleaned them. Her dad made a DIY squat rack.
"We did everything," Papadakis said. "We made like a basement gym, because it's looking like I'm going to be stuck here for quite awhile. I'm thankful to have that at least because a lot of my (judo) friends are older and live in apartments and not everybody has a full basement to use (to train)."
Papadakis' journey ahead promises to be challenging, but she is unfazed.
• To follow Nefeli's journey, visit: https://www.ahepa218.org/nefeli-olympic-dreams