David Popovici Named Swimming World’s Male Newcomer of the Year; Huge Upside For Romanian Teen

David Popovici European Jnrs

David Popovici Named Swimming World’s Male Newcomer of the Year

There was no shortage of standout newcomers during 2021, from Matthew Sates emerging as a rising star from South Africa to Sun-Woo Hwang representing South Korea in impressive fashion. But Romanian teenager David Popovici gets the nod as Swimming World’s Male Newcomer of the Year, thanks to the consistency and eye-popping nature of his top performances.

For those unaware of Popovici’s talents, a crash course was provided by the 16-year-old at the European Junior Championships, held in Rome in early July. There, he collected freestyle titles over the 50-, 100- and 200-meter distances, with the middle length difficult to fathom for someone of his age. En route to a rout of the field in the 100 free, Popovici touched the wall in 47.30, a World Junior record that immediately launched the Romanian into the event’s upper echelon.

Under minimal pressure at the European Juniors, there were questions how Popovici would respond on the biggest of stages – the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Without question, he exhibited talent and maturity beyond his years. While Popovici finished seventh in the 100 freestyle, he just missed the podium in the 200 freestyle, as a mark of 1:44.68 handed the teen – still 16 at the time – a fourth-place showing, and left him just .02 shy of bronze medalist Fernando Scheffer of Brazil.

“Two or three months before the Olympics, I wasn’t even qualified in the 200,” Popovici said. “Just managing to get fourth-best in the world blew my mind. Maybe if I saw (Scheffer), I like to think I could have beat him.”

What does the future hold for Popovici? Experts around the sport are enamored with his gorgeous stroke, his mental approach and the fact that his frame has plenty of room to which he can add muscle. It is not unreasonable to suggest that Popovici will contend for the podium in both the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle when the FINA World Championships are held in Fukuoka, Japan in May. Certainly, Popovici is not fazed by the expectations thrust upon him.

“Whenever I am in a very important moment, like a final or an important race, I don’t think about stuff anymore,” said Popovici, who turned 17 in September. “I just focus. The training is done and there is nothing more you can do. At the blocks, I have my lane, and I’m not looking at other people. It’s just me, the blank noise in my ears and focus, and the (visualization) I have done before the race…In the moment, it’s the hungriest who will win.”

In the years ahead, Popovici will likely clash with Sates and Hwang on the international stage, a possibility that augurs well for the future of the sport. While Sates is an elite 200 freestyle and medley performer, Hwang – like Popovici – made the finals of the 100 free and 200 free at the Tokyo Games.

“We have bold plans,” Popovici said. “I’m not going to go into more detail…For now, we’re taking little steps, but those little steps will bring us one day to (where we want to be).”