Gurnee native returns home without Olympic judo medal, but keeps dream alive

Papadakis to serve as grand marshal of Gurnee Days Parade on Sunday

GURNEE – This year’s Summer Olympics might be over for Gurnee native Nefeli Papadakis but her pursuit of a medal will continue.

Family, friends and the community cheered and embraced the 22-year-old, who returned home this week after an Olympic debut as part of Team USA’s judo squad in Tokyo.

“I can feel the love,” Papadakis said.

Celebrated by community leaders, Papadakis will serve as grand marshal of the Gurnee Days Parade, which begins at noon Aug. 8 on North Greenleaf Street.

With a loss to South Korea’s Yoon Hyun-ji in a 78-kilogram match July 29, Papadakis failed to advance at the Tokyo Games.

Still, her judo journey continues. She has her sights on the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

“I know I have a lot of room to grow before the next Olympic games,” Papadakis said. “I’m definitely using the loss to motivate myself.”

She will take a couple of weeks off to “rest my body and my mind,” she said, and then she’ll get back to training.

Papadakis, a 2017 graduate of Warren Township High School in Gurnee, began judo at age 4 under the guidance of her father, Steve Papadakis, a boxer in his native Greece. Along with her father, she trained with Brett Wolf, sensei and owner of Menomee Club in Chicago. She was coached on Team USA by Justin Flores.

Reaching the Olympics became an early dream for Papadakis.

She remembers visiting family in Greece during the 2004 Olympics.

“I remember how exciting it was,” she said. “I think because of my Greek culture, the Olympics has always been a big deal. … As I competed and trained and kept going to higher levels in the sport, the dream became more of a reality. I realized, ‘You can do this.’ You just have to travel and train and keep learning, keep an open mind and gain experience.

“Over the years, it just happened.”

Traveling on her own to judo tournaments around the world since she was a teen, Papadakis was set to compete in 2020 when the International Judo Federation canceled the remaining Olympic-qualifying tournaments because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then the Tokyo Olympics were postponed.

With the help of her father, she set up a gym to train in the family’s basement.

She went into this year’s Olympic competition determined and confident.

“I didn’t feel that nervous going in,” she said. “The people you’re competing with at the Olympics are the same people we’ve been competing against at Olympic trials for years.

“I told myself this is just another day at the office. I recognized it’s the Olympic games but also tried to keep a level head.”

She had studied her competitor and had a plan but said she simply “got caught.”

“The second I messed up, she capitalized on that,” Papadakis said.

As disappointing as it was, she said she values the experience and enjoyed her time in Tokyo.

“Of course, I’m very happy to even just be here,” she said. “But as an athlete, I’m competitive, and I expected more of myself. Of course, I’m going to be disappointed but it’s just fueling the fire.”

She said she likely will head to national training campuses in Florida and California the next few years as she prepares to qualify for the 2024 Olympics.

Having attended the College of Lake County and now enrolled in an online program through DeVry University, she will continue to work toward a business administration degree with plans to perhaps one day own a business.

Right now, it’s all about her Olympic dreams.

The sport has taught her humility and respect, she said, and it’s also given her grit.

“If you love something, there should be nothing that stops you,” she said. “If it does, just break through that barrier and push beyond it. Go harder.”

Papadakis is sharing her Olympic journey on social media, including on Instagram @nef.papadakis and Twitter @nefpapadakis.