World Championships: David Popovici Evokes Memories Of Ian Thorpe; Among The Best In History At 17

David Popovici: Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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When David Popovici stopped the clock at 1:43.21 for his second world junior record in as many days, and the fourth-fastest time in history, there was a feeling that here was a talent as rare and as impactful as Ian Thorpe.

It was appropriate then that Thorpe – the five-time Olympic champion – presented the 200 free podium of Popovici, Hwang Sunwoo and Tom Dean with their medals.

Thorpe was 15 when he became the youngest male world champion with two golds at the 1998 World Championships in Perth.

That was a year after he raced as a 14-year-old at the Pan Pacific Championships which he left with a silver medal.

Talk wasn’t only of that medal but the promise of the vast potential he had and what was to come, the Australian going on to become one of the greats as he transcended his sport.

Popovici was not yet born when Thorpe won the fifth and final Olympic gold of his career as he claimed the 200 free title at the Athens Games on 16 August 2004.

The Romanian was born a month later on 15 September in Bucharest, the country’s capital and now at 17, he is a world champion, a teenager on the cusp of a great career and the echoes of Thorpe resonate loudly.

Popovici had met the Australian a couple of days earlier with Thorpe saying that if the Romanian were to win the title, he would try to award the medals. And so he did.

Despite his tender years, the Romanian knows the history of his sport and the significance and legacies of those that went before.

He said:

“It’s an honour and very flattering to be compared to Ian Thorpe.

“But an idol for me? I guess Michael Phelps – just like any other kid. I guess mine is as well.”

Olympic champion Tom Dean appeared shocked by Popovici, the Briton having gone out under world-record pace, trying to build a lead over the Romanian.

“You’ve got to give it to him, there’s nothing you can do about that, 1:43.2 – bloody hell, I never thought I’d see that for years to come.

“But that’s been the pace at this meet with the 400IM (Leon Marchand) – the impossible seems impossible until it’s done and these youngsters seem to be doing just that.”

Importantly, though, Dean is Olympic champion in the 200 free and 4×200 relay, regardless of what is to come.

Popovici Elevates Himself To The Top Table


Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

The 17-year-old was flanked by the European 400 silver medallist Felix Auboeck of Austria and Hwang – whose WJR Popovici eclipsed on Sunday – with Dean in lane six.

Dean was 0.51 under world-record pace at 50 with Popovici on his shoulder, the pair through in the same order at halfway.

Popovici struck on the third 50, moving past the Briton before pulling away to stop the clock at the fourth-fastest time in history.

Only Paul Biedermann – with his super-suited world record of 1:42.00 – Michael Phelps (1:42.96) and Yannick Agnel (1:43.14) have gone quicker.

And only Agnel outstrips the teenager in textile.

Popovici said:

“My goal was to go as fast as I can, it was a tactical race, a well thought-out race.

“We just had confidence; our team, we had confidence, a lot of it.”

He added:

“The most fun is during the race because on the last lap I was saying to myself this is the biggest moment of my life thus far and now I want to make it memorable for me and everyone else

“I learn that now. It was to go out fast, not this fast though, but I guess I can surprise myself. Why not?”

Of overhauling Dean on the third 50, he added: “I knew that was his strong lap that is all I can say.”

Dean stopped the clock at 1:44.98, 0.03 ahead of Drew Kibler, to claim the bronze medal, suffering after going through 100m in 49.81.

Of the impact Popovici’s performance will have, Dean said:

“You do have to reset but I’m still going to be going for the same kind of times in training I want to be.

“I’m never going to be going out 49.8 and that be part of the race plan; it was always out too quick. I’m just keep on doing what I’m doing, the speed’s there – to suffer and to hurt in a race and still go 1:44, that’s a positive.”

He added:

“I paid for that gamble at the end of the race and I felt every single metre of that last 25.

“The atmosphere, the occasion, that’s what carried me out and the back end is coming but you can’t go out under world record pace and not expect to die on that back end.

“It’s a learning experience; I thought I had all the learning experiences behind me now but at 22 I’m still learning.

“I look three years ago – Duncan (Scott) got the bronze and he went on to do great things.”

Popovici Looks To Make History


Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Popovici doesn’t turn 18 for almost another three months.

Before then he has the European Junior Championships in Bucharest in July, the senior showcase at the Foro Italico, Rome, in August followed by world juniors in Lima, Peru, at the end of the month and into early September.

Win them all and he would hold the world junior and senior titles and the European equivalent at the same time, something that hasn’t happened before.

It was at the European Junior Championships in the Italian capital last year that he announced himself on the international stage as poolsides around the world shuddered.

He claimed the 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 shone 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.

On to Tokyo and the 16-year-old was fourth in the 200 free in a national record of 1:44.68, locked out of the podium by 0.02 as Fernando Scheffer claimed third.

That was followed by seventh in the 100 in 48.04 before failing to negotiate the 50 heats.


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