David Popovici: The Boy Who Could Be King (Full Article)
Let’s play a game. It’s the 2024 Olympic Games, with the French capital of Paris serving as the focal point of the sports world. Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a spectatorless Games in Tokyo, loud fans have returned to the venues. Rightly so, in the shadow of the Louvre, masterpieces have been created through a variety of events.
On this special summer night, a 19-year-old stands behind the starting blocks, awaiting the start of the 100-meter freestyle final. The last two Olympic champions of the event, the American Caeleb Dressel and australian Kyle chalmers, are also preparing for the coming battle. A world record might be needed for gold.
The aforementioned teenager is calm. He doesn’t get angry. But he also recognizes the enormity of the moment and how it might define his career. An international factor for several years, especially during the 2022 and 2023 editions of the World Championships, being crowned Olympic champion is the goal.
Will David popovici finish the job? The future will provide that answer.
What we do know is this: As we shift our focus from the Tokyo Olympics to the Paris Games, Popovici is a major figure in sport, his impact is only just starting to be felt. As the years go by towards the 33rd Olympiad, expect its influence to grow – though the details of its history are somewhat unusual.
The truth is, Popovici’s presence as an elite artist does not make sense. Well, that assessment could be a bit steep. Yet to see him rank among the elite freestylers on the planet – and on the way to greatness – is surprising for several reasons.
- Popovici hails from a country without a rich record of success in sport. While Romania produced a handful of female Olympic medalists, Razvan Florea is the only man from his country to stand on an Olympic podium. Florea achieved the feat in the 200m backstroke at the 2004 Games in Athens.
- The child has just turned 17 in mid-September. Despite the presence of Michael phelps and Ian thorpe as teenage prodigies, it’s rare for a man so young to emerge as a global force, especially in a powerhouse like the 100 freestyle. Usually, success comes later, when the muscle has been improved.
Then again, the greats tend to upset the norm, and Popovici certainly has the skills – physically and mentally – to carve a special career. And watching it develop is going to be a lot of fun.
Most of the athletes at the European Junior Championships, held in early July in Rome, considered the competition to be their main competition of the year. For Popovici, the meeting was a tune-up for the Olympics, an opportunity to prepare the ground for Tokyo. Over a span of six days, Popovici certainly made his name known and generated significant momentum for his Games debut.
Running at the famous Foro Italico, Popovici won the European junior crowns in the 50 freestyle (22.22), 100 freestyle (47.30) and 200 freestyle (1: 45.95). This is the middle distance in which Popovici shone the most, as his winning mark not only set a junior world record, but propelled him to world No.1 ahead of the Olympics. Also quickly, Popovici went from an intriguing prospect to a legitimate contender for a medal on the sport’s biggest scene.
The way Popovici achieved his junior swim record was mind blowing, as he came out in 22.97 and came home in 24.33. Around the sport, athletes, coaches and fans were fascinated by the young Romanian’s closing speed – as good as ever seen in the event. Eventually, that finishing power will likely be complemented by early speed, the combination leaving Popovici as a major threat for Dressel and Chalmers – and the 47-second barrier.
“I think there are layers for him,” said two-time Aussie Olympian Brett hawke, who interviewed Popovici several times on his Podcast. “I think the first thing that needs to be there is a weird gift, and he’s got a gift.” He looks like a young basketball player. Huge hands. Huge feet. He is physically constructed differently. Then you have his sense of water. When you watch him swim, he looks like Anthony Ervin. He’s one in a million. He has this ability to get his hands in the water and not look like any other swimmer. It has a natural and aquatic feel. Steph Curry shoots a 3 point. You cannot reproduce it. You can try, but you can’t. And when you add everything up, there is something special about it.
When Popovici arrived at Olympic Games in Tokyo, he was an essential athlete. With his junior European performances in ammunition, it was legitimate to ask: could this kid get on the podium? At the same time, Popovici also ran without tension. Although the hype regularly equates to pressure, the Romanian has escaped this scenario.
Hell, Popovici wasn’t even supposed to be in the last Games. If the pandemic hadn’t arisen and thrown the world into turmoil, his association with Tokyo would have been as a viewer. It was only because the Olympics were postponed that Popovici got the chance to make his five-ring debut. Call the trip to Japan a bonus, even if it is a tremendous opportunity.
Without a doubt, Popovici took advantage of it.
The 200 freestyle was Popovici’s first chance to dive into Olympic waters, and he narrowly missed the return home with gear around his neck. Although he is best known for his exploits in the 100 freestyle before Tokyo, Popovici’s best performance came in four laps. In the 200 freestyle final he hit the wall in 1: 44.68, just .02 behind the bronze medalist Fernando Scheffer from Brazil. While Popovici was running in lane one, Scheffer had exited in lane eight, which made it almost impossible for Popovici to assess his presence in the race.
“Two or three months before the Olympics I didn’t even qualify in the 200,” Popovici said. “Just being able to get the fourth best in the world blew me away. Maybe if I had seen (Scheffer) I like to think I could have beaten him.
Two days later, Popovici made it into the 100 freestyle final, adding seventh to his portfolio after a score of 48.04. Although the effort was lower than his 47.30 in Euro Juniors and the 47.72 he scored in the semi-finals, Popovici has proven himself to be among the best in the world.
The same could be said of Korea Sunwoo Hwang.
Over the next several years, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Popovici and Hwang get confused at major events. In Tokyo, 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 (semi-finals) and 1:44, 62 (preliminary).
“We are swimming the same events and we have almost the same times and he is almost as young as me,” said Popovici. “I am sure he will be a great opponent in the future.”
BEYOND HIS YEARS
Listen to Popovici speak for less than a minute and a key part of his rapid rise is evident: maturity. Success at a young age, if not properly managed, can be detrimental. Athletes with a distorted outlook on their status can possess inflated egos, harbor unrealistic – or untimely – expectations, and implode under self-imposed pressure.
Popovici does not fit the mold of a titled phenomenon. On the contrary, he is humble and offbeat by the precocious excellence he produced. As quick as he was during his teenage years, Popovici recognizes that the past can prove to be experience-wise. In addition, the 47.30 he won at the European Junior Championships will always serve as an announcement to the world. Yet he simultaneously understands that history – and that singular swim – will play no part in his pursuit of continued world-class speed.
To make your way onto the major podiums, especially at the Olympic Games and the World Championships, you have to work. In water. In the gym. Between the ears. To his credit, he is eager to follow all necessary paths, and is always open to suggestions from the coach. Adrien radulescu.
Consider Popovici’s words. Does this sound like a teenager?
“Whenever I’m in a very important moment, like a final or an important race, I don’t think about anything anymore,” Popovici said. “I’m just concentrating. The training is over and there is nothing more you can do. At the boulders, I have my way, and I don’t look at the others. It’s just me, the white noise in my ears and my concentration, and the (visualization) I did before the race… At the moment, the hungrier is going to win.
ON THE HORIZON
It is obviously impossible to predict the future, especially what will happen at the next Olympic Games. Nonetheless, Popovici is on a trajectory that suggests excellence, and his arc – as Hawke noted – could be comparable to that of the Dutch legend. Pieter van den Hoogenband.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, 18-year-old van den Hoogenband narrowly missed the podium in the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle, placing fourth in both events. These performances confirmed Hoogie’s talent and four years later, at the Sydney Games, he was the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle champion and added a bronze medal in the 50 freestyle.
Popovici left his first Olympic Games with two appearances in the finals, including fourth place in the 200 freestyle. Will he follow the path of van den Hoogenband? He definitely has the ability, and the fight for gold at next year’s World Championships in Fukuoka could make Popovici’s return to Japan enjoyable.
Yes, that means duels with Dressel and Chalmers, with Tom dean and Duncan Scott, the British who won gold and silver respectively in the 200 freestyle in Tokyo. But Popovici is eager to meet the challenges that lie ahead. Among the possibilities for the young Romanian? How about a score below 47 in the 100 freestyle and below 1:44 in the 200 freestyle? The gift for such performances is there.
For all the answers yet to come, that’s for sure: David Popovici is great.
“We have bold plans,” Popovici said. “I’m not going to go into details… Right now we’re taking small steps, but those small steps will get us someday (where we want to be).”