In the pool, the 17-year-old athlete is a phenomenon. Experts say a swimmer of his caliber, capable of crushing world records, comes around once in a hundred years. And his career has only just begun.
Last summer he was the youngest contender in two Olympic finals and the fourth-best in the world in 200 m freestyle. This summer is also the busiest of his career so far. It starts in June with the World Senior Championships, continues with European Junior Championships, the European Senior Championships and ends with the World Junior Championships, which will be his last junior event.
Everything he has achieved is a combination of rare talent, endless training sessions and a support system consisting of the right people, who knew how to nurture his talent. If all goes well, David has every chance to become the fastest swimmer of all time.
David Popovici wants to be the world’s best swimmer and has every chance
By Andreea Giuclea
Photos by Matei Buță
Translated by Oana Gavrilă
June 16, 2022
David Popovici won two gold medals at the World Championships in Budapest, the first major competition of the summer. He won the first one in the 200 meters freestyle race, setting a new Junior World Record in the process, and besting his own time from the day before. David’s winning time of 1:43:21 is now the fifth fastest in history. We also won the 100 meters freestyle race, setting another Junior World Record in the semifinals.
Citește povestea în română aici.
The teenager by the pool wants to become the world’s fastest swimmer. He is 17 years old, 1.90 meters tall and sports a roguish smile. He smooths his swim cap over his buzzcut and hides his brown eyes behind goggles. He plants his feet firmly on the starting block, stretches his long arms, with a 2.05 meters wingspan, above his head and shakes them a few times.
The teenager is David Popovici and he’s been at practice since 6:30 AM, as he is every day. The routine on this Tuesday in May includes four 100 m freestyle sprints. On the starting block, he bends his right leg in front and his left in the back, making a 90-degree angle. He breathes, bends down and, when he hears Aaand followed by a short whistle, he plunges and disappears under water.
The whistle is blown by Adrian Rădulescu, the 32-year-old coach who walks along the pool side, stopwatch in hand, carefully observing his arm strokes chopping through the water, his kicks stirring up foam, the way he holds his elbows. He sees in David the same ease in swimming he spotted when the boy was 9 and he started coaching him. After the first 50 m lap, he walks back alongside David, stops the watch and jots down the time in a hardcover notebook.
Rădulescu had warned David and his training partner, Dragoș Ghile, that today’s set would be intense, competition-grade and grueling. Major competitions take place this summer, including his last junior meets, so this is the time to swim all he can.
After the first hundred meters, David stops at the end of the lane panting. His smile is gone. He’s got a five-minute break before the next sprint, so he climbs out of the pool and resumes his position. Before diving back in, he slaps his arms and legs a few times, the way he does before races. He did it last summer in Tokyo, where he was the youngest competitor in two Olympic finals and the fourth-best in the world in the 200 m freestyle.
Last summer he also became the fastest 100 m swimmer under 18 in history. In Romania, he’d been at the top for a few years already but as of last summer he is no longer just a high school kid who swims fast – he is the swimmer hailed as a revelation, a prodigy of Romanian sports, a world swimming phenomenon. Other swimmers say his is a talent that comes around once in a hundred years.
After the second sprint, he hugs the lane rope and rests on it. He lifts himself to sit on the edge of the pool and rests for a few minutes, his feet dangling in the water and his head bent forward. He’s panting, feeling breathless. Again, he slaps his chest, shoulders and legs and returns to the starting block, dripping.
He’s hurting now so he can be fast in competitions. The World Championships in Budapest, for instance, which start on June 18, his first World Senior Championships in an Olympic-sized pool and this summer’s most important meet.
Shortly afterwards, he will be the image of the European Junior Championships (July 5-10), held in Romania, at the new swimming pool in Otopeni, where he hopes to see a large audience and make a good result in the relay. On August 18 he will try to swim fast at the European Senior Championships in Rome, and on August 30 at the World Junior Championships in Lima, his last competition as a junior before he turns 18 on September 15.
This summer is even busier than the summer of the 2021 Olympics. That is why he is up at sunrise six days a week, even on those mornings when it’s still dark out and he would happily snooze under the covers. That is why he goes to bed by 9:30 PM, even though he would like to text with his girlfriend a while longer. That is why he doesn’t see his friends often, he spends more time at the pool than at home and he trains hard because he knows “you have to give it your best”. Every time.
He dives in for his third sprint, again timed by Rădulescu. At the end of it, he lifts himself on the edge of the pool and lies down on his back, arms folded under his head and feet dangling in the water. All he can think about is how much his limbs hurt. He sits back up and rests his head in his hands until he hears the coach’s voice from behind: “Come on.” He splashes water on his face and returns to the starting block for the last sprint.
He’s had a few days of hard training so it’s normal that he doesn’t make great time. Right now, it’s the intensity of his effort that matters most; the level of lactic acid in his blood, which his coach measures by pricking his finger with a device resembling a glucose meter.
It’s the last sprint and at the end of it David rests his head on the corner of the pool, one leg on the edge. Then he gets out of the water slowly. He knows where the throbbing pain is coming from, the nausea, the burning feeling in his muscles, the cloudy vision, the headache. He knows his body is in a state of acidosis from the intense workout and it perceives lactic acid as something it needs to eliminate. All he can do is breathe and wait for it to pass, around 10 minutes or so, then he can go back in the water. He sits on a wooden bench, a towel draped over his head. Then he lies down.
Fourth-best in the world
When he stepped inside the Tokyo Aquatics Center for the first Olympic final in his career, at the age of 16 years and 10 months, he didn’t look at the people around him. Or, if he did look at the few spectators present at the pandemic edition of the Olympic Games, he didn’t see them. It was just him, the blank noise in his ears and the focus. He knew that his training was done and there was nothing more he could do. He stopped at the first lane, a sign he was not among the best seeded.
But he was no outsider either.
He had already drawn the attention of world swimming the week before, at the Euro Juniors in Rome, where he had won three gold medals (in 100 m, 200 m and 50 m freestyle) and one silver in the 4×100 m freestyle relay (alongside Mihai Gergely, Ştefan Cozma, and Patrick Dinu). More importantly, he had broken three junior world records (two in the 100 m and one in the 200 m freestyle), becoming the fastest young swimmer ever.
His time of 47.30 in the 100 m freestyle also made him the fastest swimmer that season among seniors; he had even made the tenth best time in history. He had surpassed 2016 Olympic gold medalist Kyle Chalmers, European champion Kliment Kolesnikov and American Caeleb Dressel, the current world champion. “It definitely grabbed my attention,” Dressel told a press conference. “I certainly was not going that fast at 16 so that’s extremely impressive and how he’s swimming it, I think it’s even more impressive.”
Gazetta dello Sport compared him to Russia’s four-times Olympic champion Alexander Popov. Three times Olympic champion Anthony Ervin congratulated him on Twitter, and Kolesnikov posted a photo of the Romanian swimmer on Instagram, with the caption: „Ok, ok, got it”.
David didn’t let the hype break his focus. “Job’s not done,” he thought after Rome, something he once heard in an interview with Kobe Bryant, one of the athletes whose mentality he admires and tries to adopt. To journalists who asked him how it felt to be called a phenomenon, he always answered: “I’m just a guy who swims fast”.
Before the Tokyo final he pictured what was going to happen, step by step, a visualization technique his coach taught him. He thought about the floor he would step on and how the starting block would feel beneath his feet as he would take his position. He pictured hearing his name called in the arena and the audience clapping. He pictured every little detail because if you can manage to do that, you can swim your own race. Focus only on what you can control, as his coach tells him often.
In front of his lane, he rotated his head and his arms, he splashed his face with water, slapped his arms a few times. He climbed onto the starting block, bent forward and when a long beep sounded out and the arena went silent, he plunged.
He felt from the very beginning that he was swimming fast. There was little water resistance because he has a special way of swimming. It’s what mesmerized experts in Rome: his outstanding buoyancy, the ease with which he propels himself forward, seemingly effortless. “He is among the few who swim above the water a lot, you can see his swimsuit when he swims,” said Răzvan Florea, the only Romanian man to win an Olympic medal in swimming (bronze medalist in 2004). “He has this ability to put his hand in the water and be unlike any other swimmer,” said two-time Australian Olympian Brett Hawke in an interview with Swimming World Magazine. “He’s Steph Curry shooting a 3-pointer. You can’t replicate it.”
“I’ve never seen anyone swim like that,” said Silviu Anastase, who coordinates the training of national lots within the Romanian Swimming Federation. “And I’ve seen a lot of champions.” Anastase said he needed a few hours to come to after watching the relay race in Rome “because his performance blew my mind”.
After the first 50 meters in the Tokyo final, David pushed hard against the wall and was the third to turn. Although he is not the first teen to make good time, it’s pretty rare for someone his age to swim so fast, said Braden Keith, editor of SwimSwam, which called him a prodigy. Especially in sprint events, where biological development and strength gained with age matter.
But it’s not just how much strength you have, it’s also how you use it. Efficiency is one of the things that make him special, says Rădulescu: he knows how to use his energy to achieve a certain speed, to maintain it and accelerate. “In the last 15 meters, he will manage to overtake you.”
After 100 meters in the final, he was fourth. From the water he could see the photographers along the edge and people in the stands and he thought about everyone back home – family, friends, school mates, strangers – who woke up at 4:00 AM to watch him compete. That thought made him swim “even hungrier”.
On the last 50 meters, he sped up. He seemed to be nearing the podium, to snatch the bronze. The seconds rolled fast, then stopped abruptly. He touched the wall in 1 minute, 44 seconds and 68 hundredths. A new personal best, a national and European junior record, but a time he had made before in training, which his coach, watching from the stands, was happy to see replicated in a competition. Britain’s Tom Dean and Duncan Scott had won gold and silver, with 1:44.22 and 1:44.26, respectively. The bronze medal went to Brazilian Fernando Scheffer.
“OK, that’s very good,” David told himself when he turned his head to the board and saw he was fourth.
Then he saw he was just two hundredths of a second behind the third place.
Less than it takes to blink.
“OK, maybe a medal would have been a little much,” thought David. “But next time it will be gold.”
He was still out of breath when he appeared, smiling wide and dripping water, in front of the television cameras. “I’m the fourth-best in the world is how I prefer to think of it,” he said when asked why he thought he lost the podium. That answer impressed his father, who was watching from home, and made the rounds in the media and on social networks, with posts commending him for his maturity and his relaxed attitude in such a moment.
Stopping to take in long breaths, he added: “The fact that I was just two hundredths of a second away from a medal shows how bright the future is.”
Sports outlets in Romania insisted on those .02 seconds, especially after David joked with Romanian journalists in Tokyo that he would’ve bagged the medal if only he hadn’t been biting his nails. But it’s not about a nail, said Rădulescu, who watched the recording of the race and noticed the technical mistakes. “This was the worst 200 of the season, technically. (…) At the third turn he didn’t undulate at all.”
Had he been swimming correctly, the coach has no doubt he would have won.
“Before I met Mr. Adi, I didn’t know swimming was fun”
David started swimming, at Lia Manoliu pool in Bucharest at the age of 4, the same way all active children do: taken by his parents who were hoping to pick him up all tired out so he would sleep more, but also at a doctor’s recommendation to correct early stage scoliosis. The water was the environment in which his long and lithe body felt right at home from the start and which gave him confidence. He also enjoyed the fact that at Bucharest Sport Club, the private club where he took his first lessons, swimming was play. But he liked to swim at his own pace and his first coach called him by the nickname his colleagues had given David because of his shoulder-length hair: “Fairy boy, are you watching the clouds or what?”.
He wanted to continue to swim competitively, so his parents enrolled him in a school with an athletic program, Emil Racoviță. Because they were not happy with the chemistry their son had with his coach, at 9 they asked him if he wanted to continue someplace else. He chose Aqua Team București (now Navi), a club founded in 2007 by Cătălin and Iulia Becheru, two children’s coaches with good results. It was the best children’s swimming club in the country and David told his father: “I want to win medals too”.
It was there that in 2013 he met “Mr. Adi”, as he still calls coach Adrian Rădulescu. A former swimmer with a PhD in athletic performance specialized in swimming, Rădulescu started out at the club as a volunteer, when he was a student, recommended by Pierre Joseph de Hillerin, former manager of the National Institute for Athletic Research. He told the club founders he had a student who wanted to coach at the Olympics. He first taught swimming lessons and physical fitness, then took over an athletic team that included David.
He found a restless and mischievous child who was easily bored, especially when he had to swim long distances. He would stop and play with his goggles, ask to go to the bathroom, say his head hurt, or his shoulder, or his stomach. Still, when he wanted to, he swam incredibly fast for the amount of training he did, said Rădulescu. “Minimum effort, maximum impact.”
“You could tell it wasn’t just because he was taller. OK, he was tall, but so were others. He wasn’t the strongest. He couldn’t do a push-up, others could do 100. There was clearly something else at play there.”
The challenge for Rădulescu was to get him to use his competitive streak in training as well. He understood he was the type of child who needed things explained, you couldn’t make him swim 10 laps just because you said so. He gave him materials to read about training and had him summarize the main ideas. He explained why he was feeling certain things and what happened inside his body so he would understand why he felt sick after a workout.
“He never reprimanded him,” said the swimmer’s mother, who liked the fact that Rădulescu didn’t try to change him. He let him play. They joked together. They listened to music. He always tells him to have fun and David brings this up in interviews like a mantra.
“Before I met Mr. Adi, I didn’t know swimming was fun,” David told me at the end of a training session where he got out of the water a few times between sets to change the song that was playing. Subcarpați, Kazi Ploae or Specii often boom from the speaker he sometimes brings along from home.
He has learned to accept and even appreciate pain, the burning feeling in his muscles. Because only by going through it does he get better, faster and that’s what he likes best about swimming: when he pushes his limits, when he beats the pain, when he knows he’s completed a good set. And part of his motivation to go through it all is how much he trusts his coach. “If I didn’t trust him, I couldn’t push myself so hard at every practice until I feel terribly sick. But knowing that something good comes after it, I can go through almost anything.”
Coached by Rădulescu, he started winning and he liked it. At the age of 10, he broke his first national record, in 50 m backstroke – a 24 year-old record held by Dragoș Coman, a 2003 world bronze medalist. He knew then he wanted to break as many records as he could, and has broken over 30 so far. At 14 he became the fastest swimmer under 15 in the history of the European Youth Olympic Festival, swimming 100 meters in 49.82 seconds.
It wasn’t just the results that kept them together but also the way in which Rădulescu sees the role of a coach: as a teacher who, beyond stopwatches and medals, encourages the athlete’s personality and doesn’t mold him into a template, as coaches in the past have done all too often. Who inspires and motivates, who doesn’t patronize, admits to being wrong and says “Well done” when he feels spent after a strenuous workout.
“A coach should try to also talk to athletes about life and other things because it’s not all about the sport,” said Rădulescu, bringing up John Wooden, a legendary coach in American collegiate basketball who would teach his athletes how to put on their socks so they wouldn’t get blisters. “Let’s first learn how to tie our swimsuit, put on our goggles and swim cap and then we can see about getting to the Olympics.”
“I can’t believe how much he listens to his coach,” said David’s mother, who wished for her son to be surrounded by people who would respect him and teach him – not to be the best in computer science or even the best at swimming, but to be a good person –, and she is happy to see he has that on his team. “If I recommended he read Seneca, I think he would’ve laughed at me.” David now has a small collection of books on stoic philosophy that helps him manage the pressure. From Rădulescu – who recently received an award for excellence in mentoring – he also learned how harmful sugar is and how Instagram videos weaken his attention span. “If anyone told you you could get a teenager to put away his phone for a month, would you believe them?” his mother added.
His coach talks to him about nerves and pressure. “You’re not going to this competition because you don’t deserve to be there,” Rădulescu told him before his first European Senior Championships, in the spring of 2021, when he felt David was tense about having to earn his qualifying points for Tokyo racing with the big guys. “You have qualifying time, you’re going there because you’re just as good as everyone else.”
Parents were supportive but didn’t pressure him for results
Rădulescu said there wasn’t a particular moment, a competition or a national record that revealed David’s potential, instead it was more of a process during which he saw him responding well to the challenges and the bars he set. It’s hard to see a 12-year-old kid and say he’s the next star in swimming, and he’s seen many talented ones lose their way. “There’s a lot going on in life, from your relationship with your family, the situation at home. (…) A lot of things can sidetrack you.”
What kept David on track, his coach thinks, was “first and foremost” his relationship with his parents, Mihai and Georgeta Popovici. They never said to him: “You didn’t do well in the competition, you’re grounded.” They didn’t collect medals or reward him with prizes, phones or money, as they’d seen other parents do. But they always stopped to eat at IKEA after swim meets, regardless of whether he’d won or lost, because David liked the cake there. At home, they don’t talk about swimming, time marks or training – before he qualified for Tokyo, his mother didn’t even want to hear the word sushi –, unless David wants to tell them anything about it. They care more about how he felt and whether he had fun than the time or number of laps. “That’s between him and Adrian.”
What they did was always believe in him. Although he’d never talked to any coach about his son’s potential, his father knew when he was about 11 that he would become an exceptional athlete. He was impressed by his son’s attitude. How he never let defeat bring him down. He didn’t cry, he wasn’t disappointed, he wasn’t even upset when he got disqualified for diving into the pool too early at a contest. Before competitions, he performed card tricks for his mates and he’d been nicknamed The Magician. And, regardless of the outcome, he always went in it to win in.
“He’s more consistent than we could ever be,” said Mihai Popovici, who works in sales but has become an expert in nutrition, unprocessed foods and additives. When they learned it’s best for David to eat two hours before practice, his parents started waking up before him, at 4:30 AM, to make him breakfast, which they serve to him in bed so he can sleep one more hour afterwards. At swim meets, the other parents suspected they were doping him when they saw them mixing his milk with cinnamon and honey, his favorite drink, in the trunk of their car.
As the costs of training increased, David’s father wrote hundreds of emails and made countless phone calls to find sponsors. “Very few replied but it takes hundreds of such gestures of reaching out to find one, two or three sponsors. Many around us didn’t do it, they were resigned from the start with the idea that it was impossible. There is no such thing. It’s possible, just not right away.” (Sensiblu, Moller’s, CEC and BursaTransport were the first brands to support him and in 2015 he won a grant offered by the Bucharest Community Foundation. BursaTransport still supports him today, along with Edenia, MedLife and Arena.)
When he was 8, David told a coach he wanted to compete in the Olympics, so his parents made him a cake and printed a T-shirt that said Tokyo2020, the first Games for which he would have been eligible to qualify. They made mascots and invented songs. At competitions, they wore T-shirts that said Kahuna’s mom and Kahuna’s dad, another one of David’s nicknames, a Hawaiian term for magician. They moved closer to the pool, they paid for trips to national meets and his mother, a psychologist by trade, took an anti-doping course so she could check his pills and supplements.
These are sacrifices no one sees, said Rădulescu, and fewer and fewer parents are willing to make them. From his group of 20 children, David is the only one still swimming competitively. The children’s schedule is busy with tutoring, their parents are at work and can’t bring them to practice during the day, can’t afford to support them any longer or expect to see results too soon. “Parents want certainty. And sport – as in David’s case, at least until July 2021 – is uncertain. People can’t wait.”
Mihai and Georgeta Popovici don’t see their efforts as sacrifices but as something they need to do for their son, to see him happy. Not just take him to practice but help him have as normal a life as possible, even though his schedule must be balanced down to the second to include his two training sessions, psychical fitness – at 6:00 AM, one hour before going into the pool –, rest, school, time with his girlfriend, and his rare get-togethers with friends.
“I very much want him to have a good deal of normalcy in his life,” said Georgeta Popovici, “and so I don’t like to speak about potential around him or even praise him. I’m so detached that the poor kid, when he sets a new record, looks at me and says: ‘Are you even aware of what I’ve achieved?’.” She prefers to be the one asking about his homework – he’s a high school student at George Coșbuc in the bilingual English program –, she’s the one who insisted he go to camp in eighth grade, even though it was only for three days because he had training, she also insisted he take his Cambridge English exam, even though it was scheduled two weeks before the World Championships.
David doesn’t want to talk about swimming at home or with his friends either. There is nothing sports-related in his room, apart from the drawers where he keeps his swim caps and goggles. When he was little, he used to frame all his diplomas and hang them on the walls until he ran out of room. Now he doesn’t see any point in displaying them and keeps them stored in a closet.
“Swimming is here,” he told me once after practice at the Lia Manoliu pool. “Home is home. School is school. Time with my girlfriend is time with my girlfriend.”
“Do I want to be more famous or do I want to be a better swimmer?”
Like a wave you don’t see coming, suddenly finding himself the center of public attention last summer unsettled his normal routine. He gave interviews, attended events, received international awards and dozens of messages, tags and likes. People asked for collaborations, asked for autographed swim caps, and asked him about his winning diet. Children from other countries traveled to meet him. People stopped him in the street. Drivers honked after him yelling: “You’re the best!”. In autumn last year, he transferred from Steaua to Dinamo, joining Robert Glință, the country’s other top swimmer, and became the face of international swimwear brand Arena.
At first, he enjoyed the attention. He checked every message and article and was flattered to be called the magician, the shark, a freak of nature, out of this world. He liked that he was becoming famous because one of his dreams, besides records and medals, is to inspire people – to live healthy lifestyles and dream big; parents to take their children to play sports; children to want to exercise and work for their passion; local authorities to support them more. He helped swimmers from Ukraine continue their training in Romania, and last year he swam in the Swimathon charitable event to raise funds for therapy for children with autism, with whom he used to play in childhood, when his mother brought him with her to the NGO where she worked.
But he understood, talking with his coach and his parents, that he needed to better screen all these requests because they take up chunks of his time and energy. He realized that superlatives don’t define him; that his talent was just the first step but “it’s nowhere near enough. It’s hard work, plain and simple.”
He decided to focus on swimming, “the easy part of the life that comes with good results”. Last fall he took a break from social media. He deleted all the apps from his phone, apart from WhatsApp, changed his number and decided not to give any more interviews for a while. “What is it that I really want?” he asked himself. “Do I want to be more famous or do I want to be a better swimmer? I think it’s important for people to hear what I have to say, but that time will come and it comes after I’ve done all I can do here, in the pool.”
David Popovici could make a major splash in Romanian swimming
A swimmer like David can have a major impact in Romanian swimming, said SwimSwam editor Braden Keith. “From a commercial perspective, he has the chance to be unlike anything that Romanian swimming has ever seen before, and can bring a lot of international attention to the sport in Romania. We’ve seen talents like this from lesser-known swimming nations launch and remake industries unto themselves.”
“He is already a role model and has numerous fans,” said Anastase. “Among students, at school, he’s very popular for his personality, he is earnest and easygoing.” His popularity could inspire kids to take up swimming, the way Cristina Neagu’s popularity drew kids to handball and Simona Halep’s to tennis. Halep’s commercial partnerships also led to the building of new tennis courts.
But the federal coach says Romania lacks the infrastructure to support heightened interest in the sport. “Where am I going to select kids if we don’t have any pools? Take Bucharest for instance, there should be two pools in each sector for us to be able to pick the best.”
Kids do take up swimming, said Olympic bronze medalist Răzvan Florea, who built a 25-meter pool in Constanța and opened his own swim school after retiring. He has hundreds of kids taking lessons and 40-50 who swim competitively. But what’s lacking is a strategy, a track to follow from children to seniors, increased financial support for juniors, uniformly distributed training conditions, based on performance criteria, and coaches who are better prepared and adapted to modern requirements. Otherwise, the road to the top remains bumpy and essentially based on individual efforts and exceptions. Efforts that Florea, 2000 two-times Olympic medalist Diana Mocanu, and 2004 Olympic champion Camelia Potec all made.
“It’s very difficult to make it in competitive swimming on your own,” said also Robert Glință, Romania’s first European seniors champion in a men’s event, the 100 m backstroke. An Olympic finalist in 2016, at 19, as well as last summer in Tokyo, he’s gone through several coaches, teams and pools trying to find the best team for him. “I’ve found my way to these people on my own. Such a resource isn’t made available for everyone who wants to access it. That’s why we get great results so rarely, because it’s not easy to access.”
A functional system would mean not having to look for a coach, physical trainer or nutrition expert on your own, like David’s parents did. (His team also includes physical trainer Dragoș Luscan, who also worked with Simona Halep, Horia Tecău and the women’s national handball team, kinesiotherapist Valentin Grigoraș, Belgian video analyst Stijn Corten and American nutritionist Bob Seebohar.) It would mean having more than just two Olympic-sized pools in the capital city and not having to crisscross the entire city between practice, cold saunas and massage therapy.
The ecosystem around David shows just how many puzzle pieces need to fit together so that a talented child has the chance – though not the guarantee – to make it to a podium, be it Olympic, World or European. Especially in one of the world’s most competitive sports, with millions of swimmers and thousands of top-level competitive athletes, with a history that includes names like Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with a total of 28 medals, or Ian Thorpe, world champion at 15 and five-times Olympic gold medalist; with a present dominated by Caeleb Dressel – who left Tokyo with five gold medals, one of which in the 100 m freestyle final, where David placed seventh; Kyle Chalmers, who holds the world record in the short course 100 m freestyle; or Adam Peaty, who broke 14 world records in breaststroke; and with a promising young generation coming up.
Keith sees the Romanian swimmer as more “marketable” compared to others his age. Like in a Marvel film, people are attracted by the characters that athletes represent and David seems to understand his own character pretty well. He is funny and relaxed in interviews, expressive in his non-verbal communication with his coach after competitions or when he spits out water like a dolphin; he calls himself Chlorine Daddy on Instagram, and his popularity goes well beyond swimming. He was featured on a podcast by Hope and Homes for Children alongside singer Irina Rimes, in Forbes Romania’s 30 under 30 list, and the members of the band Subcarpați met him at the airport when he returned from Tokyo. He seems to have the tools, the charisma and confidence to succeed, the journalist thinks. “It really comes down to him maintaining perspective and effort, and not getting caught up too much in the hype of David.”
And now he also has the resources. He is among the few Romanian athletes that have support – from the Federation, the Romanian Olympic Committee, from Dinamo – for training camps abroad, a full team of top specialists, supplements and recovery, even though not all in the same spot, as he would abroad.
After Tokyo, he was offered dozens of athletic scholarships from US universities to join their collegiate teams – Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, you name it, there’s probably an email in his inbox. After talking to his family, his team and other athletes who had studied there, he chose to stay in the country. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” one recruiter replied when David explained why he didn’t want to part with his coach. The chemistry they have is rare, thinks Florea, who switched five coaches by the time he competed in the Olympics. “No one else has gone to the Olympics with the same coach they started out with.”
David knows well that he is in a privileged spot and not all athletes in Romania have access to the training conditions he has. He too only got them after getting good results. “This is a problem here. You do have good conditions but only after you’ve proven yourself. If everyone had them to begin with, as is the case in more developed countries, more athletes would be here now, it wouldn’t be just me.”
“What we’re witnessing is somebody that is going to change the way we think about sprinting”
After last summer, people are expecting him to bring in increasingly spectacular results. In November, he won his first senior medal, gold at the European Short Course Swimming Championships (25 meters). Although many of his rivals did not compete, he was happy “to make a little history in Romanian swimming”, as this is the first short course gold for Romania. He then competed in the World Short Course Championships but didn’t make the finals. This spring, he dominated the National Championships, the Romanian Cup and a junior meet in Slovenia.
If training goes according to plan, a medal at the World Championships in June – where Dressel is again top favourite – “is not out of reach”, thinks David. But it’s not an essential goal either.
It’s a step in the long-term project he is building together with his team. It’s a milestone that will show them how he has progressed, how he has learned to use the strength he’s gained in the past year – which can be helpful but also cumbersome – and which way they are heading for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, where they target the podium. But also further than that, because he wants to compete in the 2028 and 2032 Olympics too.
“A lot of people will be putting on pressure from now on,” said physical trainer Luscan. “But we are all aware that we’re doing this step by step, we’re building, we’re doing the groundwork, we’re learning. Even at the upcoming Olympics, why put so much pressure on him, he’ll be 20. It’s true that he’s set the standards, but he’ll be just 20! Other swimmers win their first Olympic medal at 34.”
“Everyone now expects him to come in at number one at the World Championships,” said Rădulescu. “It’s possible but, on the other hand, he could very well not be number one, he could be number 12 at the World Championships and he could win the European Championships two months later. He might not break the world record at the World Championships, he might break it at the World Juniors. There are so many fine-tuning parameters, you reach this point where everything must be perfect.”
The coach knows he could twist his ankle when stepping off the rail where he sits to eat his sandwich after practice. Or that in May he suffered a back muscle contraction that didn’t let him swim as hard as planned for a few days. So they don’t go by other people’s expectations. Their plans and goals are their own, and aren’t just about the medals. “Even if he finishes last, if I’m happy, if I know he had a medical issue and still said, ‘No, I’ll compete regardless’. Is he showing character? OK then, I’ll continue to get up in the morning.”
He’s seen David swim every day since he was 9 and doesn’t make too big a deal out of his junior world records, or the fact that he is faster than Dressel was at his age, or people saying he is a freak of nature. For now, all that just sounds good. For now, he’s not impressed with what David is doing in the pool today.
But what he could do in the future is truly impressive. What he could be able to do in time, if all goes according to plan, if he fulfills his potential, this word so often used in sports and that depends on so many factors, so many people, and so many details. If he reaches his best self, this favorite phrase of self-help books, which in his case is something palpable. His team has a computer mock-up of his potential future achievements, based on his best results so far and how he can improve them. And it’s “absolutely ridiculous”, his coach said.
“What we’re witnessing is somebody that is going to change the way we think about sprinting. This kid’s gonna go 46 [in the 100 m freestyle], there’s no doubt about that. But could he go 45? That’s where we’re headed,” said Brett Hawke, who calls him a freak of nature. “At some point, I think he will be competing against himself to beat his own time. I think he will stay number one for years to come,” added Luscan. “Eventually, he will be the guy who everyone else is chasing in the 100 freestyle and 200 freestyle,” said John Lohn, editor of Swimming World Magazine, which ran an article about him under the headline The Boy Who Might Be King.
“I think he wants to set new standards,” his father said. “And he wants to show that what was thought to be impossible can become possible.” The world records in 100 m freestyle – 46.91 seconds – and 200 m freestyle – 1:42:00 – haven’t been broken since 2009, when swimmers competed in full-body polyurethane swimsuits, now considered by some “technological doping” and banned since.
If Dressel came within five-hundredths of a second of the 100 m freestyle record and will probably beat it soon, the 200 m record is among the most daring. “There is this idea that this is the best that could be achieved,” David’s father added. “He wants to show that a lot more is possible. And I think that’s why he gets up every morning and is so consistent. He’s not doing it for us, he’s not doing it for anyone else, he’s doing it for himself and to prove something to himself.”
His mother seems hesitant to look towards this future. “I’m afraid to think about it in a way. (…) I’m afraid it might overwhelm him. I don’t think it’s going to change who he is.” But she knows this is his path, not theirs, and wishes for him to achieve whatever he sets his mind to.
David is “not at all” scared about what’s coming. “Somebody’s got to do it, so why wouldn’t I be that really good athlete who does it and has a success story?” It doesn’t scare him because “in the end, the future is nothing but imagination. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You can imagine it but that’s all there is.” Negative scenarios, expectations and pressure are also nothing but imagination. Sure, he thinks about what it would mean and how it would change his life but he doesn’t pay too much attention to that. “I just take every day as it comes.”
And every day is the same. He wakes up early, eats his yogurt with oats, chia seeds, honey, banana and blueberry, goes back to sleep for an hour, then heads to the outdoor pool at Lia Manoliu. He warms up, takes off his clothes, puts on his goggles and swim cap. He steps up on the blockstart, looks up towards the sky, then down at the black line on the bottom of the pool, a swimmer’s best friend, and dives head first towards this future. It’s nothing but imagination but you still have to swim towards it.
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