At 17, David Popovici is already the new phenomenon of world swimming

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Champion of the 100m freestyle then of the 200m, David Popovici, 17, splashes the European swimming championships with his talent. What predict an extraordinary career for the Romanian prodigy.

Where will David Popovici stop? The question arises as the 17-year-old Romanian prodigy is demonstrating at the European Swimming Championships in Rome. On Monday August 15, he became European champion in the 200m freestyle (1’42”97) but also the third best performer of all time at this distance.

In the history of swimming, only two have gone faster than him over two hectometres: Paul Biedermann, who set the record in 2009 (1’42”00) at a time when wetsuits were allowed , and the American legend Michael Phelps, for a small hundredth (1’42”96).


Asked at the start of the week about the possibility of approaching the world record of the German swimmer, established in this same swimming pool of the Foro Italico, Popovici, philosopher, had replied: “Paul is human, he was human when he broke the record , and we’re all human. I think it’s as simple as that.”

He had started his weekend just as “simply”: a title in the 100m and above all a world record in the distance. Popovici thus improved by five hundredths the mark of the Brazilian César Cielo, which dated from 2009, by swimming the round trip in 46 “86. A mark which had been established with the help of a combination, moreover.

A former slacker turned ascetic

David Popovici was born in Romania in 2004, the year Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut in Greece. His parents launched him into swimming on the advice of a doctor, above all to correct scoliosis problems.

His talent quickly becomes obvious. He then joined Adrian Radulescu’s club, which he still calls “Mr. Adri” today. A trainer with whom he develops a close relationship.

The coach assures that his colt has the legs – and the arms – as well as the head to win. He tells this anecdote: “We were in training, he must have been ten years old, we organized a competition with swimmers of the same age. Twenty-five meters to swim and the last one was eliminated. Two boys were better than him, we started the game. Each time, David finished second to last. In front, they wanted to prove that they were good and they got tired. In the final, the last one had no more energy and David won. So at ten years old , he already had the intelligence and the talent.”

“He was not easy to train but he had something special: the competitive spirit, in addition to intelligence and talent. When he wanted to, he swam incredibly fast for the little training he he inflicted himself”, remembers his coach in L’Équipe. “A minimum of effort for a maximum of impact. It was really a challenge to succeed in activating this spirit of competition so that it agrees to work.”

Yesterday’s dilettante has become an outstanding competitor. “I broke my first national record at ten years old. Then I became addicted to the feeling of the top step of the podium,” he said in an interview with the International Federation.

The life of a top swimmer resembles a priesthood. You have to be in the pool from early morning, work until exhaustion, never go out at night. Far from the life of a normal teenager. More than one athlete got burned there, like Laure Manaudou or Ian Thorpe, who both announced their first retirement from sport at the age of 22 and 23. David Popovici, he seems to revel in the life of a monk which is his, assuring that “Mr. Adri” showed him that swimming was a “pleasure”.

In the light in Tokyo, devoted to Budapest

It is already in Rome, during the European Junior Championships in 2021, that he sends a first message to the swimming planet. He smashes the junior world record in the 100m with a 47″30. It is also the best world performance of the year, one hundredth ahead of Kliment Kolesnikov’s 47″31.

Popovici confirms a few weeks later. The youngest member of the Romanian delegation to the Tokyo Olympics, he was just missing a first Olympic medal: two hundredths separated him from bronze in the 200m freestyle final. Everyone will now have an eye on the prodigy, who has not even finished growing.

>> To read also: Swimming: Caeleb Dressel and Emma McKeon, king and queen of the Olympic pools

This is well over when he comes to the world championships in Budapest. With his endless arms, his 2.05 m wingspan and his 90 meter for 80 kg, David Popovici impresses. He managed the 100m / 200m double, a performance hitherto only achieved by the American Jim Montgomery in 1973. Admittedly, Caeleb Dressel, the most dominant swimmer of the moment, was absent, but the feat is remarkable. In the process, he confirmed his domination at home, in Bucharest, at the European Junior Championships, with three titles (50 m / 100 m / 200 m freestyle).

Impressed by his Olympic performances, several American universities then offered him to come and train with them. But unlike another prodigy, the Frenchman Léon Marchand, who left to train in Arizona, prefers to stay in Romania alongside his lifelong coach, Adrian Radulescu.

A bit insolent, David Popovici ensures that his crazy summer is not over. As of Wednesday, he will line up for the 400m series, a distance he practices less. Then he will fly to Lima in Peru to compete in the junior world championships, where it is hard to see who could challenge his domination.

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