David Popovici Looking to Recapture 2022 Magic With Olympic Gold at Stake

David Popovici of Romania reacts after competing in the 100m Freestyle Men Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 26th, 2023.
David Popovici -- Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

David Popovici Looking to Recapture 2022 Magic With Olympic Gold at Stake

Following the splendor of his record-breaking swims the previous year at the World Championships and then at the European Championships, David Popovici was an obvious choice for gold in both the 100 and 200 freestyle at the 2023 Worlds. He had achieved times that swimmers had been chasing since the end of the polyurethane suit era in 2009, lowering Cesar Cielo’s global standard in the 100 free that had eluded even Caeleb Dressel and becoming the first man to break 1:43 in the 200 free without one of the aforementioned banned suits.

And nothing seemed amiss about Popovici’s repeat plans until the final 50 meters of the 200 free final in Fukuoka. He was one second clear of the field, having out-split the other seven men on each of the first three lengths of the race. But it all fell apart after that, the seemingly-invincible Popovici stunningly falling apart with the slowest split in the field as Matt Richards, Tom Dean and Hwang Sunwoo all moved ahead of the Romanian to put away medals.

The results two days later in the 100 free were no better, with Popovici flipping in third place at the halfway point before fading badly and ending up sixth.

That left the Popovici heading into his second Olympic campaign as a 19-year-old with every bit of potential to win double gold in Paris but also huge questions that did not exist before Fukuoka.

Since then, Popovici has competed at the European Short Course Championships in December and then at the Euro meet over the weekend in Luxembourg. He won 100 free bronze and took fourth in the 200 free at the continental championships in Otopeni, solid results considering the tough competition and Popovici’s traditional struggles in short course.

David Popovici of Romania receives the Athlete of the Year award during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.

David Popovici — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

And in his first long course swims of 2024, Popovici swam marks of 1:46.19 over 200 meters and 48.01 in the two-lap race, neither time close to his best but strong marks for early season and six months out from the Paris Olympics. It’s far too early in the year for the world rankings to mean much, but Popovici is first in both of his events so far this year and solid results off which to build.

As soon as he finished off his disappointing Worlds, Popovici expressed optimism that he could get back on track quickly.

“I need to train better. I need to train more, and most importantly, I need to be more consistent. That’s the glue that holds it all together,” Popovici told Swimming World on the heels of his 100 free final at Worlds. “Fortunately for me, what hasn’t gone perfectly here is trainable. As long as I take care of my training, be more consistent than I have been this year, which had a lot of ups and downs, I’m going to be just fine.”

We’ll know for sure if that’s true come Paris, at the meet that determines swimming legacies. Every meet over the past two-and-a-half years, even the World Championships to some extent, has served as a secondary priority for some swimmers. The ultimate test will come when medals are on the line at the extravaganza that is the Olympics.

When Popovici first swam at the Olympics as a 16-year-old, he missed the podium by just two hundredths in the 200 free. That was when Purdy was in the midst of his rapid emergence, and he was playing with house money just swimming in the Olympic final after recording enormous time drops over the previous month to put himself into contention.

His Tokyo performance and his swims in 2022 proved Popovici’s talent beyond a doubt. Paris will be about resilience. Can he respond to the first real setback of his elite career, all while proving that his earlier results were no fluke? The answer will present itself in due course as Popovici squares off with the British and other top challengers in the 200 free plus Kyle Chalmers and other top sprinters in the 100.

Reaching the pinnacle in swimming? Tough. Returning to that peak after a drop-off? Perhaps easier physically, since an athlete can remember the work that went into that first breakout, but certainly tougher mentally. The reality of that earlier success can weigh down a swimmer as they fear further failure.

That is the situation Popovici faces as he chases Olympic gold.

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22 days ago

I like your topics, and always I enjoy reading them, whenever they appear about this phenomenon, David Popovici. He will be a different guy at the Olympics, for sure, and he has to know that he should not put pressure on his head that he is not good enough to win. He is the fastest swimmer no matter what, and he needs to capitalize on this.

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