At 17 years old, David Popovici scaled the heights of swimming this summer. He swept the 100m and 200m freestyles at the world championships in Hungary, a nation that borders his native Romania.
Popovici, the youngest man to win a world title in 15 years, knew he could celebrate by doing just about anything he pleased. So he did on that late June night.
“I wanted to eat something good, and I wanted to eat a lot, and I wanted to stay up late,” he said in a poolside interview three days after his last race at Budapest’s Duna Arena, presumably enough time to rest, and to digest more than just the lasagna, duck, seafood and dessert.
After that feast, Popovici did something that speaks to the unique personality of the self-appointed “Chlorine Daddy.”
“I just wandered the streets,” he said.
In a scene reminiscent of Charles Barkley strolling Las Ramblas in 1992 — well, maybe not quite to that scale — the 6-foot-3 kid mingled with Hungarians and Romanians alike, sharing the afterglow of his victories in the dark of night.
“Sometimes,” Popovici said, ruminating in flip-flops in a chair a few steps from the pool, “you need to feed your brain as well.”
Popovici, born and raised in Bucharest, made the move from junior prodigy to, as Romania’s daily sports newspaper splashed it, “King David” at worlds in Budapest, two years before the Paris Olympics.
“You know, my neck is quite heavy because of the medals,” he said, according to FINA. “So I need to strengthen that part for the next meets.”
The link in Popovici’s Instagram bio provides a comprehensive account of his life up to those breakout world championships. His coach since age 9, Adrian Radulescu, confirmed the veracity of such stories as:
Popovici began swimming at age 4 for two primary reasons: His parents hoped it would tire him out. A doctor recommended it to correct early stage scoliosis.
Reminiscent of Ryan Lochte‘s upbringing, Popovici eschewed training by fiddling with his goggles, asking to go the bathroom or saying his head, shoulder or stomach hurt.
“He couldn’t do a push-up, others could do 100,” Radulescu said, according to the report.
He may have acted like Lochte, but he studied another American. On mornings that Popovici didn’t have swim practice, his dad queued videos of Michael Phelps‘ races.
“He would kind of play the expert and tell me, ‘Look how many under waters [kicks] you’re doing. Look at the way he is flying,'” said Popovici, who was born after Phelps already competed in two Olympics and is so young that he only remembers watching live Phelps’ final Games in 2016. “Like a lecture about swimming. Almost every morning, we would watch him, get inspired.”
That Romanian report also noted other ways Popovici’s parents aided his growth. Such as serving breakfast in bed at 4:30 so that he could eat at an optimal time of two hours before practice. Or mixing milk with cinnamon and honey in the trunk of their car at swim meets, leading passers-by to wonder if he was being doped.
Popovici was called “the Magician” for performing card tricks before meets.
His reward after racing was a trip to the local IKEA cafeteria. “Swedish meatballs and cake,” Popovici recalled in the sitdown interview.
He quickly harbored Olympic ambitions. Eight days before Popovici turned 9, Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games, taking place when Popovici would be 15. Soon after, his parents made him a cake and printed a T-shirt that said Tokyo 2020, according to the Romanian report.
By 2019, he appeared on his way. Popovici was the fastest Romanian man in the 100m and 200m frees with times sneaking in under the “B” standard for Olympic qualification — not competitive for medals, but enough to get to Tokyo if no countryman went faster.
After the Olympics were postponed, you could tell he really got serious just by looking at him. Popovici buzzed off his shoulder-length brown locks — “Swimming makes living with long hair complicated,” he reasoned.
In 2021, he dropped his 100m free personal best from 49.26 to, three weeks before the Games, 47.56, a time that would have won the 2016 Olympics. Two days later, he dipped to 47.30 to become the fastest man in the world for the year going into Tokyo.
In Japan, he finished fourth in the 200m free, missing a medal by two hundredths of a second. But, in a feat reminiscent of a 15-year-old Phelps’ 2000 Olympic 200m butterfly fifth-place debut, Popovici lowered his personal best by .58 of a second. (He later was seventh in the 100m free.)
Then he pasted a link into his Instagram bio of a post-race Romanian video interview.
“The interviewer asked me, ‘How did it feel losing the podium?'” Popovici said, recalling the back-and-forth after his triumphs in Budapest. “And my reaction was simple and natural. It was, ‘I didn’t lose, I won fourth place.’ And that in itself was and still is an amazing accomplishment for our country and for an athlete alone. I sort of humbled the reporter for a second there.”
Romania, the land of Nadia Comaneci and Simona Halep, last produced an Olympic swimming gold medalist in 2004. A Romanian man has never won an Olympic swimming title.
“It’s not that popular,” Popovici said of swimming back home. “The thing is, it will be now a hell of a lot more popular.”
Thanks in part to a 48-hour stretch that put his face on at least one building in Budapest.
On June 20, a confident Popovici intentionally took a seat in the second row of chairs in the pre-race ready room for the 200m freestyle final at the world championships.
“I wanted to be in the back because I just wanted to see the nerves of everyone,” he said on retired Australian Olympian and coach Brett Hawke‘s podcast. “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.”
Minutes later, he won the 200m free in 1:43.21, a world junior record and the world’s best time for any age in 10 years. Australian legend Ian Thorpe, who is 39 yet finished his Olympic career before Popovici was born, draped the gold medal around his neck.
The next morning in the 100m free heats, Popovici swam the world’s fastest time of the year to that point. Before that night’s semifinals, Olympic champion and favorite Caeleb Dressel withdrew on unspecified medical grounds. Popovici swam .47 of a second faster in the semis than his heat, then won gold the next day to become the first man or woman to sweep the 100m and 200m free titles since the very first worlds in 1973.
Popovici regretted not racing Dressel in Budapest. He also made it a point to mention a gesture by Dressel from a year ago. At the Olympics, the American came up to the Romanian and congratulated him on his world junior record from earlier that month.
“He’s a cool, chill guy,” Popovici said.
Next week, Popovici headlines the European Championships in Rome, site of his breakout three weeks before the Tokyo Games. In two years in Paris, Popovici could be part of a European revolution in Olympic men’s swimming with Frenchman Leon Marchand and Italian Thomas Ceccon.
Unlike Marchand, who swims for Phelps’ longtime coach Bob Bowman at Arizona State, Popovici is not expected to leave Bucharest for the NCAA, despite having contact with Stanford, Cal and Texas, among other schools.
The goal for his second Olympics: “Be the best version of myself and try and make history,” he said. Any specific history?
“I don’t want to go too much into it,” he said. “But we want to change the world of swimming in our way.”
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