David Popovici Is a Generational Talent Prompting Comparisons To Precocious Legends In All Sports

Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

David Popovici Is a Generational Talent Prompting Comparisons To Precocious Legends In All Sports

Oh, this youngster. So much potential. Over time, what might be possible? The mind wanders, flooded with possibilities. Championships and multiple world records are envisioned. Times beyond what was deemed reasonable are imagined. It’s a fun exercise, and one that can venture into the surreal.

They come along every now and then, sparking special eras. Guys like Wayne Gretzky and LeBron James. Tiger Woods is an example. Women such as Serena Williams and Mia Hamm. Their common tie is precocious talent, and the fact that their can’t-miss status – a heavy weight to carry – was fulfilled, even exceeded.

In this sport, plenty of teens have flourished through the years, especially within the female sex. Think about Shane Gould and Tracy Caulkins. Most recently, it was Katie Ledecky’s turn. While it is rarer among men, there is no scarcity of names. In the past quarter-century, Ian Thorpe was a world champion at 15 years old. Michael Phelps was a world-record holder at the same age.

When these unique gifts first appear, it is wise to harbor measured expectations. As much as we prefer to see a young star excel, some flames flicker out. Others, of course, do not. And as these generational talents begin to blossom, those associated with the sport – athletes, coaches, officials, and fans – cannot contain their excitement.

David Popovici has this sport abuzz.

It was a little more than a year ago in which the Romanian youngster started to garner the attention of the world. A 47.30 clocking in the 100-meter freestyle at the European Junior Championships cast light on Popovici’s burgeoning skill. But his breakout was something more. Going 47-point in the 100 freestyle is not an ordinary splash. It defines the best of the best, and here was a then 16-year-old going up and back on the lower end of 47 seconds.

Finals appearances in the 100 and 200 freestyle followed at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, a fourth-place finish in the longer event leaving Popovici just shy of the medals. Yet, he didn’t see the podium lockout as a downer. It was, instead, a measure of growth, and it is that mentality which further separates the teen as an anomaly.

Following his work at the European Championships on Saturday night, Popovici retreated to his hotel room in the Eternal City as the newly minted fastest man in the history of the 100 freestyle. A day earlier, he became just the fourth man ever – the second in a textile suit – to break the 47-second barrier in the sport’s marquee event. The encore was a world record of 46.86, an unreal performance that wiped out the 13-year-old standard of Cesar Cielo (46.91). Then there was a 1:42.97 mark in the 200 freestyle, the third-fastest performance of all-time. These newest efforts followed world titles in the 100 free and 200 free from June in Budapest.

“Yeah, I’m fully aware that what’s coming now is the hardest part, even harder than preparing for the World Championships and performing well there,” Popovici said after the World Champs. “But I have good people around me who will protect me and guide me through this phase, so I can still focus on swimming. The only pressure I feel is that now I’m the leader of our national team, and I’m supposed to motivate the others and lead our guys, which is something new. But I’ve accepted this role and what comes with it.”

Greater attention, for sure.

It was fitting that Popovici broke Cielo’s record in Rome, for that was the site of the Brazilian’s former standard – achieved at the peak of the super-suit circus. More, the Foro Italico is an iconic venue in the sport, and to have swimming’s newest superstar break his first world record on the grounds was perfect.

Is comparing Popovici to Phelps and Thorpe a form of aquatic blasphemy? They are two of the greatest athletes to grace the water, and it required years of work – and sustained international success – to sculpt their figurative monuments as swimming Gods. We’re not suggesting Popovici is on par with what the GOAT and Thorpedo packaged from a career perspective. What is undeniable is the link of precociousness, and the potential for Popovici to be a face of the sport. One day, he indeed could be a legend, too.

“So, I’m sort of in a world-record club,” Popovici said. “After I finished, Kristof Milak said to me ‘welcome to the club.’ That was a nice welcome, I guess. It’s good to set new boundaries. Records are meant to be broken. I hope someone’s going to break mine and that I’m going to break his. That’s what sport is all about.”

Now that he can be identified as a world-record holder in the highest-profile event, Popovici has entered a new realm. His name will be mentioned with the likes of Duke and Johnny. Mark and Matt. Alexander and Pieter. It’s a special club, and David has many years ahead in which to elevate the event – and sport – to greater heights. As beautiful and smooth as his stroke might be, Popovici is not 18 until next month. That means more muscle to come. More experience. It is known fact, after all, that peak performance in the 100 freestyle does not come until the mid-20s.

What does that mean? Again, take a moment and let the mind go. Don’t worry, we’ll wait.

OK, what crossed the mind? Scoreboards flashing digits difficult to comprehend? The erasure of that ridiculous – super-suit boosted – world record in the 200 freestyle? Romania featuring a strong National Team, the athletes inspired and motivated by Popovici. Whether Popovici’s homeland can surge to a point where it is a factor globally won’t be known for some time. What is a guarantee is the upcoming spike in young boys joining the sport.

The beauty of an athletic savant is how it allows appreciation for a unique gift. Gretzky’s creativity on the ice. Williams’ overwhelming power on the court. The way Phelps and Thorpe moved water.

David Popovici – as it pertains to the pool – is a boy genius, already among the world’s elite.

He will also let us dream and wonder, and that opportunity is engaging.



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