Nefeli Papadakis: Judo Way of Life

Nefeli Papadakis: Judo Way of Life

Nefeli Papadakis has qualified for the American representative in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics for Team USA in judo. She will be competing at 78 kilograms. At only 21 years old, Papadakis is looking to represent her country this summer in Tokyo. She joins Colton Brown and Angelica Delgado on Team USA qualified athletes.

Watch Nefeli Papadakis below!

Papadakis started in judo at a very, very young age. “I started judo when I was four years old in my hometown: Gurnee, IL,” says Papadakis. “My dad, who has also been my coach since day one, did a little bit of judo when he came to the US for college. He came to the United States from Greece, and really enjoyed the sport.”

“Flash forward to the summer of 2003 after he had met and married my mom already, they had me and my older brother, George, and signed up my brother in judo. George was 8 years old and I was 4, so I was a little young to start judo but I would go with to practices and watch from the sidelines. After three weeks of just watching from the sidelines and constantly asking my dad to let me try too, he talked with the coaches and they agreed to let me give it a go, despite my young age (I would say the average age to start judo is 6 or 7 years old). You’d be surprised how much kids can pick up just by watching, because I loved it. I loved learning something so cool and different, and absolutely loved getting to fight. It was really fun for me and after entering and winning my first local tournament later that year, four year old me fell in love with the sport.”

Judo is Nefeli Papadakis’ life. But she does spends time with family and friends outside of the sport. Outside of judo I like to spend time with my family and friends. She says, “As athletes we’re gone so often for tournaments and camps all over the world for extended periods of time (anywhere between 2-4 weeks at a time) so when I’m home, it’s truly a breath of fresh air to just spend time with the people I love. In addition to judo, I grew up playing basketball for most of my life as well and actually played varsity basketball all through high school, so I’m a pretty big basketball fan. I do like to play at the gym once in awhile, but I really enjoy going to see my old highschool teammates play who are playing at the college level now.”

Having 17 years experience in judo, Nefeli Papadakis has some wisdom to hand out to judo players aspiring to have the type of success she’s achieved.

“I think the biggest piece of advice I could give to someone wanting to take up judo is to be tenacious and to stay humble. Timing, technique, and experience make all the difference in a sport like judo, so it’s important to keep working hard on your goals and to not give up. Once you start reaching your goals and working your way to the top of the totem pole, I believe that it’s extremely important to be humble. A saying I often bring up is that ‘it’s anybody’s day, every day’, and that definitely is true in this sport. One wrong move or wrong reaction can lead to you getting slammed flat on your back. It doesn’t matter if you are Olympic champion or just making your debut on the world stage, you can’t underestimate anybody and that is why judo is one of the most unforgiving sports.”

Judo: Not Like Other Sports

Papadikas continues to explain that unlike most team sports, there are no breaks in judo. She explains that there are no adjustment periods in judo. There is no chance to catch your breath. It is just judo. “There are no quarters or ‘second halves’ for you to come back from, and there are no time outs for you to take time to talk with your coaches and switch your gameplan up in the middle of a match. You go on the tatami and fight your ass off for four minutes, or until a winner is declared. That can mean a 15 minute match that went into overtime you grind out, or just as easily, a 15 second match that was lost because of a critical mistake or miscalculation.”

As with Colton Brown, Papadakis has not yet made the Olympic team. But, she’s qualified at this moment. “For me, this is my first Olympic run so hopefully I can get back to you on how that feels in a couple months,” said Nefeli Papadakis with a laugh.

She continues on her journey leaving the juniors division into the international scene. “I just aged out of the juniors division (under 21 year olds) last year, so I am a little newer in the senior international game than most of the rest of my teammates. The Olympic team isn’t officially named until the end of May for our sport, but I will keep working towards that goal in these next few months! But it would definitely be a dream come true.”

Nefeli Papadakis’ Olympic Run

In or out of the Olympics yet, Papadakis is preparing as if she’s already on the team and preparing to compete in the Olympics. Competing at the highest level in the sport of judo requires complete dedication and preparedness. It’s not just being prepared physically, but mentally, Papadakis has to be perfectly sharp as well.

“I’m doing everything in my power to train my body and brain. A big part of my preparation is obviously being in top physical shape and as sharp as possible with my techniques. But another crucial part of me achieving my goals for Olympic gold is to gain as much experience and knowledge as possible before the games. Whatever holes I have in my game, I’m trying to fix and perfect before Tokyo so I can be as prepared as possible. I also am doing my homework on what my opponents strengths and weaknesses are so I know what I’m getting into before fighting every match.”

Memories that last

With having spent so much time in the sport, there are so many amazing memories had for Nefeli Papadakis. She could not narrow it down to just one thing. She recounted several memories coming up through the judo circuits.

“Oh man, it’s hard to narrow it down just one favorite memory of my judo career! Growing up would have to be taking 5th place at the Cadet World Championships in 2015. Although I was only 17, it was a big moment for me because it gave me a lot of hope and confidence. I knew that I could do it, and that I had it in me to be great. I just had to push a little harder to get to the podium on the world stage.”

“Two more current favorite memories of mine would be taking my first medal at the Senior Pan American Championships, bronze, in 2019 and making my first finals block at a grand prix in Antalya, Turkey. Although I lost that bronze medal match and took 5th place in the end, it was a big moment for me because I was really out there by myself. We had no coach sent to this event so all the athletes had each others’ backs and I was at the tournament with just a few other teammates yelling for me and helping coach/support me at that event. When I was fighting in the bronze medal match, the camera man zoomed in on my teammates coaching me from the stands since I was without a coach, and I thought that was pretty cool. It was a really good feeling knowing they had my back and I’m forever grateful to them for it. This moment also gave me hope that I was capable of fighting and ‘could hang’ with the best at the senior level, I just had to push a little bit more to finally make the podium.”

Papadakis also practices Brazilian jiu jitsu as well. She feels it compliments here grappling skillset currently already honed.

“I do practice other martial arts, I’m actually a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu! I enjoy it a lot because it complements judo well and grappling is really fun to me.”

Nefeli Papadakis will hopefully be announced for Team USA in judo soon. With all her hard work, the entire country and American judo community will be pulling for her during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Be sure to follow Nefeli Papadakis on Instagram, Facebook, her Facebook page to follow her judo journey and Olympic run. Also go check out her website here as well and consider donating to her camp!

Blaine Henry

Just your friendly neighborhood fight fan!


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