David Popovici: The Boy Who Might Be King (Full Article)

david-popovici

David Popovici: The Boy Who Might Be King (Full Article)

Let’s play a game. It’s the 2024 Olympic Games, the French capital of Paris serving as the focal point of the sporting world. Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a spectator-free Games in Tokyo, boisterous fans have returned to the venues. Fittingly, in the shadow of the Louvre, masterpieces have been crafted across a variety of events.

On this particular summer night, a 19-year-old stands behind the starting blocks, awaiting the start of the final of the 100-meter freestyle. The past two Olympic champions in the event, American Caeleb Dressel and Australian Kyle Chalmers, are also preparing themselves for the battle ahead. A world record might be necessary for gold.

The aforementioned teenager is calm. He doesn’t get rattled. But he also recognizes the enormity of the moment, and how it could define his career. Having been an international factor for several years, including at the 2022 and 2023 editions of the World Championships, being crowned Olympic champion is the target.

Will David Popovici get the job done? The future will provide that answer.

What is known is this: As we shift our attention from the Tokyo Olympics to the Paris Games, Popovici is a major figure in the sport, his impact just beginning to be felt. As the years tick away toward the 33rd Olympiad, expect his influence to grow – even if the details of his tale are somewhat unusual.

David Popovici European Jnrs

David Popovici: Photo Courtesy: deepbluemedia

The truth is, Popovici’s presence as an elite performer doesn’t make sense. Well, that assessment might be a little strong. Still, seeing him rank among the elite freestylers on the planet – and on track for greatness – is startling for a couple of reasons.

  • Popovici hails from a country without a rich track record of success in the sport. While Romania has produced a handful of female Olympic medalists, Razvan Florea is the only man from his country to stand on an Olympic podium. Florea accomplished the feat in the 200 backstroke at the 2004 Games in Athens.
  • The kid just turned 17 years old in mid-September. Despite the presence of Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe as teen prodigies, it is rare for a male that young to emerge as a global force – especially in a power event such as the 100 freestyle. Typically, success comes later, when muscle has been enhanced.

Then again, the great ones tend to disrupt the norm, and Popovici certainly has the skill set – physically and mentally – to etch a special career. And watching it develop is going to be a whole lot of fun.

COMING-OUT PARTY

Most of the athletes at the European Junior Championships, held in early July in Rome, viewed the competition as their primary competition of the year. For Popovici, the meet was a tuneup for the Olympics, an opportunity to set the groundwork for Tokyo. Over a six-day stretch, Popovici certainly made his name known – and generated significant momentum for his Games debut.

Racing at the famed Foro Italico, Popovici claimed European junior crowns in the 50 freestyle (22.22), 100 free (47.30) and 200 free (1:45.95). It was the middle distance in which Popovici shined brightest, as his winning mark not only established a world junior record but vaulted him to No. 1 in the world entering the Olympics. That quickly, Popovici transformed from an intriguing prospect into a legitimate medal contender on the biggest stage in the sport.

Swimming World October 2021 Presents - David Popovici - Expect Great ThingsThe way Popovici managed his junior-record swim was stunning, as he went out in 22.97 and came home in an eye-popping 24.33. Around the sport, athletes, coaches and fans were mesmerized by the Romanian youngster’s closing speed – as good as ever seen in the event. Eventually, that finishing power is likely to be complemented by early speed, the combination leaving Popovici as a major threat to the likes of Dressel and Chalmers – and the 47-second barrier.

“I think there are layers to him,” said two-time Australian Olympian Brett Hawke, who has interviewed Popovici several times on his podcast. “I think the first thing that has to be there is a freaky gift, and he has a gift. He has a physique like a young basketball player. Huge hands. Huge feet. He’s physically built differently. Then you have his feel for the water. When you watch him swim, he has an Anthony Ervin feel. He is one in a million. He has this ability to put his hand in the water and be unlike any other swimmer. He has a natural, aquatic feel. He’s Steph Curry shooting a 3-pointer. You can’t replicate it. You can try, but you can’t. And when you add everything up, he has something special.”

OLYMPIC DEBUT

When Popovici arrived at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, he was a must-watch athlete. With his European Junior performances as ammunition, it was legitimate to ask: Could this kid reach the podium? At the same time, Popovici also raced without tension. Although hype routinely equates to pressure, the Romanian escaped that scenario.

Hell, Popovici wasn’t even expected to compete at the most-recent Games. Had the pandemic not arisen and thrown the world into turmoil, his association with Tokyo would have been as a television viewer. Only because the Olympics were postponed did Popovici get the chance to make his five-ring debut. Call the trip to Japan a bonus, albeit a tremendous opportunity.

Without question, Popovici took advantage.

SW102021 David PopoviciThe 200 freestyle was Popovici’s first chance to dive into Olympic waters, and he narrowly missed returning home with hardware around his neck. Although he was better known for his exploits in the 100 freestyle heading into Tokyo, Popovici’s best performance came over four laps. In the final of the 200 free, he touched the wall in 1:44.68, just .02 behind bronze medalist Fernando Scheffer of Brazil. While Popovici raced in Lane One, Scheffer was out in Lane Eight, making it nearly impossible for Popovici to gauge his presence in the race.

“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.”

Two days later, Popovici contested the final of the 100 freestyle, a seventh-place finish added to his portfolio following a mark of 48.04. Although the effort was shy of his 47.30 from the Euro Juniors and the 47.72 he managed in the semifinals, Popovici proved he belonged with the best in the world.

The same could be said for Korea’s Sunwoo Hwang.

Over the next few years, it wouldn’t be stunning to see Popovici and Hwang tangle at major events. In Tokyo, the 18-year-old Hwang was fifth in the 100 freestyle (47.82) and seventh in the 200 freestyle (1:45.26), with best times of 47.56 (semifinals) and 1:44.62 (prelims).

“We swim the same events and we have almost the same times and he is almost as young as me,” Popovici said. “I’m sure he will be a great adversary in the future.”

BEYOND HIS YEARS

Listen to Popovici speak for less than a minute and a key element to his rapid rise is evident: Maturity. Success at an early age, if not properly managed, can be detrimental. Athletes with a warped perspective of their status might possess an inflated ego, harbor unrealistic – or untimely – expectations, and implode under self-imposed pressure.

POPOVICI David

Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Popovici does not fit the mold of an entitled phenom. Rather, he is humble and unphased by the early excellence he has produced. As fast as he has been during his teenage years, Popovici recognizes that the past may prove beneficial from an experience standpoint. More, the 47.30 he popped at the European Junior Championships will always serve as his announcement to the world. Yet, he simultaneously understands that history – and that singular swim – will play no role in his pursuit of continued world-class speed.

To find his way onto major podiums, specifically at the Olympic Games and World Championships, work must be done. In the water. In the gym. Between the ears. To his credit, he is eager to follow whatever path is necessary, and is always open to the suggestions of coach Adrian Radulescu.
Consider Popovici’s words. Does this sound like a teenager?

“Whenever I am in a very important moment, like a final or an important race, I don’t think about stuff anymore,” Popovici said. “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.”

ON THE HORIZON

It is obviously impossible to predict the future, especially what will transpire at the next Olympics. Nonetheless, Popovici is on a trajectory that suggests excellence, and his arc – as noted by Hawke – might be comparable to that of Dutch legend Pieter van den Hoogenband.

At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an 18-year-old van den Hoogenband just missed the podium in the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle, placing fourth in both events. Those performances confirmed Hoogie’s talent and four years later, at the Sydney Games, he was the champion of the 100 free and 200 free and added a bronze medal in the 50 free.

Popovici is moving on from his first Olympics with a pair of finals appearances, including the fourth-place effort in the 200 freestyle. Will he follow van den Hoogenband’s path? He undoubtedly has the ability, and contention for gold at next year’s World Champs in Fukuoka could make Popovici’s return to Japan an enjoyable one.

Yes, it means duels with Dressel and Chalmers, along with Tom Dean and Duncan Scott, the Brits who won gold and silver, respectively, in the 200 freestyle in Tokyo. But Popovici is eager for the challenges that lie ahead. Among the possibilities for the young Romanian? How about a sub-47 mark in the 100 freestyle and sub-1:44 in the 200 freestyle? The gift for such performances is there.

For all the answers still to come, this much is certain: David Popovici is big-time.

“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).”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Wella Hartig

    Really exciting to see young blood like this coming up! All events are changing, the best of luck to whatever country your from. May you stay healthy and continue to love it, never look for the money do it for the LOVE of the sport!💙🏊🏼‍♀️🏊🏼‍♂️

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