Sort of part of Four Days in London: A memoir about trying to find a way to the Olympics, and finding something else instead.
Here’s a run down of weird career mistakes. I’m writing this after a glass of wine and having given thought to writing something like this for a while. These aren’t in any particular order. I just really like lists.
- Letting my social dislike of wrestling interfere with my willingness to practice.
As I’ll probably talk about in another chapter, I vehemently hated wrestling. While middle school wrestling was fine, high school wrestling was miserable. I did it for five years all together, and I didn’t actually enjoy it until my senior year of high school when I finally made varsity. Even then it was purely my time on the mat that I enjoyed. I hated wrestling for all the run of the mill reasons people loathe high school. I didn’t really understand this until I was in college. While in college I would pop into the occasional club wrestling practice and I was invited back my freshman and sophomore years of college to get on the mat with my high school team.
I am genuinely glad I wrestled for a long list of reasons. That said I was a bit of a black sheep and weird by high school wrestling standards. Off the mat I was bullied and even on the mat I would get an ear full. I was basically the weird omega of the wrestling team. This made me about as interested in going to off season wrestling practices as I was in kitchen mold.
I should have just wrestled more. I wasn’t able to get on the judo mat more than a few times a week through most of high school. I had the opportunity to wrestle more and I didn’t take it because I didn’t like getting teased. That wasn’t a great call.
I only came back those few times to help the high school practices to help my friends Parkes and Corey. Corey has always been a good friend. Parkes I felt like I owed for having been my training partner my senior year of high school. To put this in context, no one wanted to be my training partner. I was a tall awkward teenager who smelled like a tall awkward teenager. I initially had a training partner for the first week of senior wrestling who sprained his ankle and quit. Afterwards my options were not having a drilling partner or being stuck with a much smaller freshman novice wrestler who I would need to spend the entire season teaching.
As a side note for anyone who doubts grip fightings viability for self defense applications:
My junior year at a tournament this kid on the team pulled a knife on me in the bathroom. I had started sticking up for myself and I don’t think he liked it. The knife was in his left hand, which happened to be the hand I was used to controlling during grip fighting. That grip fighting instinct kicked in immediately and I took control of the knife hand. With neither of us being interested in the conflict progressing further, thankfully we walked away from each other. I didn’t got to a particularly dangerous high school. The event was basically a black swan.
2. Valuing match time above common sense and going to tournaments that didn’t mean anything without a coach.
I tended to fight just about everything I could get my hands on for both better and worse. If it wasn’t a major point tournament or at least something I knew was basically at a national level I would compete in at least two divisions. In BJJ and when I was a teenager I would often compete in three or four divisions. There’s a lot of value in just getting match time. The problem is when you go over board and do something stupid.
I got very badly injured at a tournament I didn’t need to be at. It was the weekend before what was going to be a pivotal judo tournament for me. The injury itself really ended up being the defining injury of my grappling career. Three surgeries later and it still hurts as I write this. There was ultimately no reason for it, like, at all. I was incredibly lucky when I got hurt that my teammates father was there and that I knew the tournament directors. The directors made sure I got to the hospital and the father picked me up and gave me a ride to the airport. Sure it was LA and I would have figured stuff out anyways but it made a major difference. When you are in agony your decision making ability is limited. Had this been Mexico where my year and a half of high school Spanish was found wanting after the first day, I might have been in trouble. Years later I finally watched the match. For years I thought I was losing that match. When I finally saw the tape I saw I had gotten hurt taking a big shot I didn’t need to take. Had a coach been there I don’t think that would have happened.
If the tournament is pivotal and you must got without a coach, or even another athlete you are friendly with, that’s life. Otherwise be reasonable about pursuing match time.
3. Not recognizing that extra work does not replaced required work
I’m very happy that I’ve done a lot of Brazilian jiujitsu by judo standards. I’m pretty proud of what I managed to do in the art while training with a fairly broken left shoulder and hammering away at two masters degrees and a full time job even if it wasn’t much. There are not many people running around with both a national level medal in judo and a bjj rank at or above purple belt. That said I had a six month period where I would substitute a few of my judo practices every week with bjj. Those extra bjj practices were great and I got a lot out of them, but they were meant to be bonuses. I bring this up sometimes when I hear of someone talking about taking a practice off after a hard day of lifting or running. I didn’t actually develop the kind of offensive guard to really take advantage of that time investment until the end of the London quad. With that additional note, I probably should have started BJJ much earlier.
4. Not pinning Jacob Larsen at the 2008 US Open.
In an absolute freak accident I broke Jakes arm at the 2008 US Open. He and I fought once before at the USJF junior nationals. He came in for a big hip throw and in the ensuing scramble my hip came down on top of his elbow joint. When I saw him rolling on the ground yelling in pain, I stopped completely to check that he was ok. Jimmy screamed at me to pin him but the referee had already called to stop the match to check him. Jimmy turned around, looked at Nick Delpopolo, and exclaimed: “he’s too damn nice”. Jake managed to get up and throw me for the win with his one good arm.
Had I won that match I probably would have made the finals. I beat the guy I would have fought in the quarter finals in the first round of the repechage. I would have had a very winnable match against a guy from Great Britain in the semis. I’m fairly confident Robert Edward from Canada would have kicked my ass in the finals. A silver medal would have given me the number one slot for 90kgs at the time and I believe a spot on the pan am team. I think about this moment sometimes late at night. It would have been infinitely better for my judo career had I dove on top of Jake and held him down for the twenty five seconds it would have taken to get the win.
I don’t regret this mistake. I don’t regret stopping to make sure someone was ok.