Suburban judo training helps take Gurnee woman to Tokyo Olympics

At just 5-foot-5, Nefeli Papadakis isn't a terribly imposing figure.

But you probably wouldn't want to meet up with her in a dark alley.

"Not if you're trying to kidnap me," Papadakis said with a laugh. "I stand a better chance of being able to defend myself than the average person."

Papadakis, a 22-year-old Gurnee resident who graduated from Warren Township High School in 2017, has been doing judo since she was 4 years old.

"My dad (Steve) signed up my older brother George, and I would tag along. I was just 4, but after a few weeks, I started bugging my dad to try it," Papadakis said. "My dad thought it would be a good idea for us to learn some kind of self-defense."

And now, not only can Papadakis defend herself in a dark alley, she can call herself one of the best at judo in the country.

Papadakis is suddenly an Olympian.

Last week, Papadakis found out that she had made the U.S. Olympic judo team after points from a three-year qualifying period were finalized. Papadakis is ranked No. 30 in the world, and competes in the 78 kilogram weight class, which is approximately 170 pounds.

Warren High School graduate and Gurnee native Nefeli Papadakis, top, competes at the Senior World Judo Championships in Tokyo in 2019. She will compete for Team USA in the upcoming Olympic Games. Courtesy of Nefeli Papadakis

Papadakis leaves for Tokyo on July 21.

"When I found out that I made it, I was super emotional," said Papadakis, whose father Steve is Greek and whose mother Beth is Filipino. "But I've been trying to qualify for so long. Normally, it's a two-year qualification period but because of COVID, it's been a three-year process so we've all been at this for so long and as we've kept going along, I just believed more and more that I belong."

Papadakis is a grass-roots success story.

She trained for years at the small Gurnee Judo Club near Viking Middle School.

Her dad, who grew up boxing in Greece, submerged himself in judo as he watched his two children compete and learned so much about the sport that he eventually became his daughter's primary coach.

In fact, the Papadakis family even started its own dojo in Waukegan, Arena Training Center, and kept that going for five or six years until they had to close it when travel for Nefeli's national and international events became too involved.

"I was never at a big-name club, and it was just my dad that was coaching me," Papadakis said. "I never really had an in or any kind of political pull in the sport. Everything I've done, I've really had to do myself, with my dad."

Warren High School graduate and Gurnee native Nefeli Papadakis will compete for Team USA in judo in the upcoming Olympic Games. Courtesy of Nefeli Papadakis

Papadakis got serious about basketball in high school and was point guard for a Warren team that won 25 games her senior year. However, Papadakis missed her junior season because it was a big travel year for her in judo.

"I loved basketball and I really liked being on the team. I had played basketball in feeder since like fourth grade," Papadakis said. "But judo was my priority and I just got really busy competing all over the country and the world my junior year."

Judo has taken Papadakis to 25 countries, including Tokyo, the Bahamas, Croatia, the United Arab Emirates, Bosnia, Peru and Costa Rica, as well as dozens of cities across the United States. She says that her breakout moment was placing fifth in a world championship in Sarajevo in 2015 when she was just 16 years old.

"That was a game-changer for me," Papadakis said. "I was really young and that was one of my first big international events and I was so close to getting the bronze. That made me realize that I could really do this and maybe compete in the Olympics."

Papadakis knows that she will be an underdog at the Olympics. She is still young, she is an Olympic first-timer, she's not seeded, and she is just starting to get her footing in international competition.

But her love for the sport, and an optimistic outlook has her thinking that anything is possible.

"There is just something about the adrenaline rush you get while competing, that's what I love so much about judo. I really enjoy fighting," Papadakis said. "It's a high-stress, high-intensity sport that takes a lot of mental toughness and it's not for everyone, but I have fun with it. I like that challenge and it turned me from a very shy and timid kid growing up to someone with a lot more self-confidence.

"I'm not sure what to expect in Tokyo, but I do know that on any day, it can be anyone's day. I got in and I'm there for a reason and I think I'm capable of beating anyone."

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