World-class instruction

Former Olympic contender moonlights as trainer for rec club

Popiel teaches two classes a week at the ARC.
Popiel teaches two classes a week at the ARC.

Elite martial artist Michal Popiel showcases his wealth of experience twice a week at the ARC.

A second-year economics PhD candidate, Popiel began teaching Queen’s recreational Judo Club classes this September after being off the mats for a year.

His career in combat sports stretches back to his time as a high school wrestler in Texas and culminated in a run at the 2012 London Olympics.

“I was on the mats twice a day for most of my life,” said Popiel, PhD ‘16. “I needed a break.”

After graduating high school, Popiel had the option of wrestling at the collegiate level, but chose instead to travel to Japan and train in judo at the International Budo University.

“When I landed in Japan, I didn’t know a word of Japanese, but I picked it up quickly,” Popiel said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

The Japanese team trained six days a week, including several hours of sparring every night.

“Sometimes I look back and don’t know how I did it,” he said.

His body certainly shows the years of dedication. Popiel’s torso is lean from drilling and his ears are swollen with cauliflower.

Popiel was at the peak of his game in the lead-up to the 2012 Summer Olympics. He was ranked in the top 22 in the world for his weight class — just above the cut-off for the Games.

But spending so much time on the mat made him susceptible to injury. Eight months before the Olympics, he suffered a herniated disc in his back and fell out of contention.

At the same time Popiel was gunning for the Olympics, he was also completing his master’s degree in economics at Concordia University.

He failed to qualify, retired from competition and moved to Kingston, where he started a PhD at Queen’s last year.

After spending last year away from the mats, Popiel returned enthusiastically this fall and now teaches two recreational judo classes a week at the ARC.

The classes begin with a dynamic warm up and combine technique, drilling and sparring.

Popiel teaches both stand up and groundwork — judo’s two foundational aspects — and with 10-20 students in each class, he’s able to give personal attention and feedback.

“I’m always walking around, answering questions,” he said.

His students, in turn, are picking things up quickly.

“They’re training really hard. It’s rewarding to see people making progress.”

Josi Morgenroth, Sci ’14, is the vice-president of Queen’s rec Judo Club. The club was initially referred to Popiel through his wife, who ran judo classes at Queen’s for a few weeks last year.

Morgenroth has practiced judo since childhood and has fought competitively in the past. Still, she notes that the club caters to students of all levels, and they’ve retained most of the beginner students that signed up in September.

“We pushed the fact that we have Michal this year, and that he was going to build their skills from the ground up,” Morgenroth said. “We had a lot of people come out [in September] who had never done judo before.”

She’s planning on organizing an in-house judo tournament at the end of the Fall semester, with Popiel set to referee.

“[It’s] just so people can get a chance to see what competing is like,” she said.

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