David Popovici, the phenomenon that world sport was waiting for

David Popovici, the phenomenon that world sport was waiting for

BarcelonaWhen David Popovici (Bucharest, 2004) was 9 years old, he already spent more than five hours every day in a swimming pool training. And on the days that his coach, Adrian Radulescu, let him rest in the mornings so he could study, it was his father who put him on YouTube videos of races won by Michael Phelps. “I remember how he looked like an expert. He got serious and asked me if I had noticed how many kicks he did in each pool”, the young swimmer recalled recently in an interview after the Romanian national championships. Little David, however, did not enjoy those trainings in which the adults seemed so serious. So he started making up stomach aches. Other times Radulescu realized that the little boy was not listening to him, playing with his swimming goggles with a lost look. At times Radulescu was afraid that Popovici would give up swimming. It wasn’t like that.

At the age of 17, Popovici is already swimming history, after breaking the world record in the 100 meters freestyle on Saturday in the final of the European Championships, which is held in Rome. A swimmer under age had never managed to break this world record, but Popovici surpassed with a time of 46.86 according to the mark of the Brazilian César Cielo, who in 2009 had flown in the pool with a time of 46.91. “This boy is special. It is normal that we now compare him with the champions of the past, but it feels like we will soon be talking about him without having to compare him with anyone”, said Cielo himself to the Brazilian media when asked about the lost record.

Popovici has gone from being a secret known to swimming experts to being the most sought-after face at tournaments in recent years. “After Phelps’ retirement, this guy could be the most exciting news that has happened to swimming,” admits Celio. And not only in swimming. Sport in general had been looking for a few years for someone who could be as special as Usain Bolt in athletics or Phelps himself – the athlete with the most Olympic medals of all time – in swimming pools. And the young Romanian fits the bill. His body, as it happened to Phelps, is not like others. He is thin but strong, with very long arms and short legs. Almost without hips, as if instead of being born they had designed him to fly in the water.

His father, a salesman, and his mother, a psychologist, took him to a swimming pool for the first time with an idea in his head: if he swam, he would get tired and stop being that hyperactive child who left them limp. In addition, the little one suffered from scoliosis, a deviation of the back, and the doctors advised him to swim. This is how Radulescu discovered this very special boy, who in no time has become one of the most famous Romanians of the moment. To insulate herself from the pressure, she hardly ever gives interviews, and tries to find a balance between her career and her psychology studies, which she wants to finish. He will find facilities, since now all doors open in his path. Instead, not so long ago his parents saw that the commercial brands they asked if they wanted to sponsor him said no. More than one of these brands must be pulling their hair out, now.

Feed the brain

Popovici, with so much hunger to win, has become the swimmer of the moment and has managed to stop talking about the American Caeleb Dressel, who at 25 years old already has seven Olympic titles. At the last World Championships in Budapest, Dressel won two golds before retiring in the semi-finals of the 100m freestyle, not facing a Popovici who would be proclaimed world champion in that event. The Romanian would win two gold medals in Budapest, the capital of one of the nations where swimming is most looked after, Hungary, Romania’s great rival.

The Romanians, unlike the Hungarians, have never had an Olympic champion in a pool. Now they threaten to have the young man who can rewrite this sport in the coming years. After becoming the youngest swimmer in the last 15 years to be world champion in the 100m freestyle, Popovici decided to walk alone through the streets of Budapest, covered with a cap. As if it is clear that he has few moments left to feel anonymous. “Sometimes you have to feed the brain”, he would explain himself in a conversation with Romanian television back home.

It was immediately clear to his parents and Radulescu that Popovici would be a champion. It took him a while to realize it. Now you know. “I have to train my neck, I’ll load it with medals”, joked a young man who at the age of 10 had breakfast every day in bed, half asleep, at half past five in the morning, as it was the ideal time to eat before jump in the pool two hours later. When he won a race, the prize was to go to an Ikea, to eat the Swedish cookies he liked so much. When it was announced in 2013 that the 2020 Olympic Games would be held in Tokyo, his parents celebrated his 10th birthday with a cake and a T-shirt that read “Tokyo 2020”. Said and done. In 2019, at the age of 15, he already had the mark to be in Japan, although the pandemic postponed for a year the Olympic event in which he would be presented in society and in which he would finish fourth in the final of the 200 meters freestyle. He was tenths away from getting on the podium. “I haven’t lost anything. I have won fourth place”, would say a young man who, before competing, surprises his teammates with the magic tricks he does with cards. That’s why they know him as “the magician”. In addition to a special body, he has a special mentality. He has everything to dominate swimming for years to come.

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