Romanian teenager David Popovici has set the sporting world abuzz — and sparked astonishing claims about his potential — after ending the 13-year chase of a world record that appeared for so long unbreakable.
The 17-year-old won Sunday’s (AEST) European Championships 100m freestyle final in a time of 46.86 seconds, slicing 0.05sec off the historic mark set by Brazilian Cesar Cielo in 2009.
This wasn’t just any world record. Cielo’s time was set at the infamous Rome world championships, an event held at the height of swimming’s farcial era of buoyant ”super suits” that were banned months later.
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Many of the records set at that meet have been broken in recent years — especially over longer distances — but a host still stand, including German Paul Biedermann’s 200m and 400m freestyle times.
The 100m freestyle mark had remained the holy grail and only after US superstar Caeleb Dressel broke 47 seconds last year did the mark seem realistically within reach (Australians Kyle Chalmers and Cameron McEvoy had come close with times of 47.08 and 47.04 respectively).
Now men’s sprint swimming has its new groundbreaker and while that fact that it is a skinny 17-year-old kid might seem unlikely at first, Popovici has the hallmarks of swimming greatness in mind and body.
While unusually thin for a leading sprinter, Popovic’s physique is made for swimming. He’s 190cm, has size 14 feet, huge hands and little curve on his body, allowing him to torpedo through the water. Like Michael Phelps, he has an enormous wingspan of more than two metres.
Popovic lacks the sheer strength of his rivals — Romanian journalist Andreea Giuclea said early in his career Popovic “couldn’t do a push-up, others could do 100” — but he makes up for it in other ways, according to his coach Adrian Radulescu.
“David has a keen sense of water,” said Radulescu. “It’s not about how much force you can generate, but how you can put it into the speed you develop. So, yes, he is very thin, but he has enough strength to swim at higher speeds.
Then there is his mindset. Popovici is a cool customer — respectful of his rivals but in no way intimidated by them — with a quiet killer instinct, having spoken recently of his relationship with pain and his willingness to embrace it.
In a fascinating insight to his competitive mind, Popovici revealed last year on the Inside with Brett Hawke podcast he actually enjoys watching his rivals squirm before a race.
“I wanted to be in the back (of the because I just wanted to see the nerves of everyone,” he said about vision showing him at the back of the waiting room ahead of the 200m freestyle world championships final.
“I had my nerves, of course, but I knew people were more scared of me than I was of them. … I just wanted to enjoy that moment of seeing the little bit of fear in their eyes.”
Popovici is already redefining what is possible. He is the only swimmer in history to break the 47-second barrier twice (he clocked 46.98 in the semi-finals this weekend).
Given his age it’s scary to consider what might be possible in his career and Popovici is already thinking very, very big.
He revealed after his record-breaking triumph he considered a sub 46-second 100m swim within the realm of possibility in his career — inspired by Adam Peaty‘s ‘Project 56 when he became the first man to break 57 seconds in the 100m breaststroke.
“A fantasy now might be a 45. Adam Peaty is a pioneer in terms of the goals he set. For others it was science fiction, but not for him,” Popovici said.
Popovici’s performance is said to have “lit a fire” in Dressell and it will surely do the same for Australia’s Rio Olympic champion Chalmers. But, should Popovic’s trajectory continue, they may be racing for second at Paris 2024 and beyond.
The Romanian‘s emergence has sparked some big projections about what kind of legacy he might be able to carve out in the pool, and outside of it.
John Lohn, writing for Swimming World Magazine, declared Popovic may be a “generational talent” who had the potential to create a legacy like some of sport’s greatest ever figures.
“They come along every now and then, sparking special eras. Guys like Wayne Gretzky and LeBron James. Tiger Woods is an example. Women such as Serena Williams and Mia Hamm. Their common tie is precocious talent, and the fact that their can’t-miss status – a heavy weight to carry – was fulfilled, even exceeded,” Lohn wrote.
While Lohn stressed Popovici had a long road ahead to reach the status of some of the sport’s greatest ever, the nature of his development drew undeniable comparisons with that of Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe.
“Is comparing Popovici to Phelps and Thorpe a form of aquatic blasphemy? They are two of the greatest athletes to grace the water, and it required years of work – and sustained international success – to sculpt their figurative monuments as swimming Gods,” Lohn wrote.
“We’re not suggesting Popovici is on par with what the GOAT and Thorpedo packaged from a career perspective. What is undeniable is the link of precociousness, and the potential for Popovici to be a face of the sport. One day, he indeed could be a legend, too.”