The Summer of David

Gold medals, records, fame and other stories from the summer of a teenager who became the fastest swimmer of all time.

By Andreea Giuclea
Photos by Matei Buță
Translated by Oana Gavrilă
29 August 2022

On August 30, 2021, David Popovici sat before a blank sheet of paper. That summer he had become the world’s fourth fastest swimmer at the Olympics, had broken world junior records and gained international acclaim as a swimming phenomenon. But he knew he could do even better and swim even faster and so he asked himself: “What would be more impressive, hard to achieve and a real challenge?”

To answer that question, he picked up a black marker and did what he does ahead of each new season, ever since he was a kid: he wrote down the times he wished to achieve in his main events – the 50, 100 and 200 meters free –, as well as in other strokes. The next day, he took the paper to practice, curious to see what his coach had to say. He knew full well what he had jotted down and that in some cases he had targeted times that hadn’t been achieved by other swimmers, not in the last decade at least.

“All right, let’s get to work,” Adrian Rădulescu said after reading it. This is how the 32-year-old coach with a PhD in athletic performance has been motivating his swimmers since they were starting out: by asking them to set time goals for the next competitions. It was never about the podium or about winning medals because, in swimming, only one’s best personal time matters. He would then set practice goals depending on what they targeted for competitions.

His first thought when he saw what David had written was how he could help him get there. He didn’t think it was impossible. He knows how fast he can be in the pool because he’s been watching him swim every day since he was an energetic 9-year-old with no patience at practice but who swam incredibly fast in competitions. He took a picture, in case they misplaced the paper, but didn’t speak of it again.

Back when he was younger, David used to tape those targeted times to the fridge or in his room, like Michael Phelps did with his annual goals. But now he knew he had the picture on his phone and the seconds etched into his brain. He visualized them every time he lay down in bed, closed his eyes and imagined the perfect race: the start, the turn, the moment he takes the lead, his winning time.

On June 11, 2022, one week before the World Senior Championships in Budapest, the first of the summer’s four major competitions, the coach sent him the picture via WhatsApp with no other comments. David had been having a confusing training period, he’d been swimming well and not so well and he didn’t really know what to expect. David didn’t feel he’d gotten into his groove either. But he also knew that, faced with a high stake, he can outdo himself. He is the type of athlete who thrives on the pressure of big arenas, the attention, the challenges.

The next day, Rădulescu asked him if the targeted times still stood. On the edge of the pool, in the shaded corner where he usually drops his backpack and towel, David told him not to worry. He was feeling good about Budapest. “Wait till I get there.”

“Mr. Adi”, as David has always called him, was the right coach for the restless child he met at NaVi private swimming club, where he is a co-founder. He was patient and didn’t try to change him. He knew how to motivate him, how to channel his competitive spirit at  practice. He explained to him why it was good to set goals and how to work toward reaching them. He taught him not to measure himself against others but only against himself. To focus on what he can control and disregard outside pressure and expectations. To set out to be the best because that’s what you should do, in any job, and to give his best at each practice because only perfect training can take you there. But they also joked together, listened to music, talked about life outside the pool. The special bond they have is one of the reasons why David turned down several admission offers from US universities.

Before his first World Seniors, he told David to “Have fun!”, as always. But this time he added: “You know those memes with many question marks surrounding that guy’s head?”

“Yes,” said David.

“That’s what you should do now. Question marks. Mind games.”

So he planned to make everyone around him wonder: “Who is this guy? What is he doing here? Is he really that good?”. He dominated the 200m free heats and made it to the semifinal with the best time, 1:45.18, wowing everyone with his technique. “Look at how relaxed he swims, how easy he makes it look,” said the competition commentators, referring to him as the “Romanian superstar”. “It’s almost like an optical illusion,” thought an Australian journalist who has been covering swimming for 30 years. “It doesn’t look like he’s even trying but he’s absolutely flying through the water.”

He dominated the semifinals that same afternoon. He won easily and set a new junior world record: 1:44.40. The night before his first World Championship final, he went to bed late – after the anti-doping test, dinner and massage –, and didn’t sleep too well. He wasn’t so much nervous as brimming with anticipation. He knew he would do well. He knew it was going to be great. And he wanted it all to happen sooner.

On June 20, in the Duna Arena pool on the bank of the Danube, he warmed up and got the last pointers: watch your turns, make clean moves. He shook hands with his team members – physical trainer Dragoș Luscan first, then Rădulescu, always last – and went to the call room, where finalists wait before they are called. With his white swim cap and goggles on, he sat one row behind the other swimmers, on the chair directly behind the Tokyo Olympic champion, British swimmer Tom Dean. A banner behind him read: You can do this! You have no limits! A show of confidence, David said afterwards. He wanted to get a taste of their fear and nerves. He had his own but he knew the others were a bit more afraid. They had swam next to him at the Olympics, where he came in fourth, just 0.02 seconds shy of the podium, at just 16 years old. They had seen his times in junior competitions, they had heard he was the kind of phenomenon that comes around once in a generation and they were expecting him to get better and better.

When he stepped into the arena, “Go David!” resounded from the bleachers where his parents and a few other Romanians watched. He had swam good times in the heats and the semifinals and he knew he still had energy left . He thought about being calculated, not starting out too fast, but not too slow either. He enjoys the 200m freestyle because it’s tactical and smart, the kind of race that requires thorough planning.

With the lights off, beneath the cube that read Make History, he didn’t have the fastest reaction at the start. Nineteen year-old South Korean Sunwoo Hwang was the first to jump into the water. He wasn’t ahead after the first lap either. Tom Dean was the first to turn after 50 meters, with a speed below the senior world record. Dean was still first after 100 meters.

On the third lap, the audience stood up. David took the lead and left the others behind. “This is the most important moment of my life so far,” he told himself every other stroke. “I have to do this and I have to prove – not to anyone but to myself – that I can be the best in the world and I can do it in style.” His legs burned but his brain was more alive than ever. He wanted to win more than anyone in the pool. He wanted it to be memorable.

He was the first to touch the wall, followed by Hwang and Dean. He turned his head towards the scoreboard and saw the numbers: 1:43.21. In the last 10 years, no swimmer had gone below 1:44. He clenched his jaw and punched the water, sending splashes of foam up in the air. He knew he could swim it but seeing it on the scoreboard still felt incredible. He was now the fourth fastest swimmer of all time and the second in a textile suit. (The polyurethane swimsuits of 2008–2009 have since been banned for offering unfair technical advantages.) It was a new junior world record and an even better time than the 1:43.39 he had written down on his goal sheet the previous summer.

He took off his swim cap and punched the water again.

He was the world’s best swimmer, his childhood dream come true. He was also the first world champion in the history of Romanian men’s swimming.

“Bloody hell, I never thought I’d see that for years to come,” Dean said after the final. “The impossible seems impossible until it’s done and these youngsters seem to be doing just that.”

“Very impressive time,” Australian legend Ian Thorpe, watching him from the bleachers, commented on Instagram.

“I’m gonna go home not to watch my race, but to watch him do what he did,” said Elijah Winnington, world champion in the 400m free in Budapest and 8th in the final David won.

Your boy is enormous!” an official told Camelia Potec, president of the Romanian Swimming Federation, that night outside the arena. “And he’s just getting started. A new king is born today.”

His performance flooded social media feeds. His Instagram notifications were on fire. But inside the Duna Arena, David and his team experienced the moment less exuberantly. He called his girlfriend, talked over WhatsApp with his older brother and his aunts, some of the very few people who have his phone number. Because he had no time, he only swam 5-7 minutes to recover instead of around 30 minutes. He ran to the award ceremony, where he received his gold medal from Thorpe and Potec, herself an Olympic champion in 2004, in the 200m freestyle. Potec had teared up and was telling herself: “Camelia, don’t let your knees buckle.”

With the medal resting around his neck and a bouquet of blue flowers he wanted to give to his mother, he went to the press conference. The first question was who congratulated him. He told reporters he had received a bunch of messages and that his parents hadn’t texted him yet: “They just don’t want to bother me but they’re waiting for me outside. I don’t mind at all but they’re always very thoughtful about everything and I respect that.”

Georgeta and Mihai Popovici supported David’s swimming from the outset but never pressured him to get results. At home, they never talk about times or records. 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 almond, chocolate and caramel cake there. They wake up at 4:30 AM to make him breakfast and the sandwich he eats 15 minutes after practice. They looked for sponsors, became nutrition experts, drove him to practice, cold sauna sessions and school, and his mother even took an anti-doping course. They organized their lives around his swimming but they also wanted him to be a normal teenager as much as possible: to go to school and at camps, to take his English exams, to go out with friends, ride his bike or see a movie.

After the press conference, he called his mother, who told him he’d made her cry. “And I don’t cry easily. Good job!” His parents had watched the final from the bleachers, waving two Romanian flags, and his mother told him she had no words to describe how they felt. They hadn’t been nervous, but they wanted him to win, knowing it would make him happy.

“It was incredible, you guys rock, we’re really happy for you.”

“That last turn though… A bit sloppy,” his coach said jokingly.

“I’m sure, I noticed that too,” David’s mother laughed back.

She also asked him whether he had anything to eat and made a plan to meet outside, after the doping test, which is mandatory for medalists and record-breakers. David put his medal back inside its square box and put the box in his backpack so it wouldn’t get scratched and because he doesn’t like walking around with medals around his neck. Outside, among the fans waiting for pictures and autographs, his parents applauded him and hugged him from behind a fence that was inscribed with the same slogan – Make History. They put off the celebration for the end of the competition. The next day he was swimming in the 100m freestyle heats.

“The revolution will not be televised,” David wrote on Instagram the next day. The race in which  the youngster made history didn’t air on any Romanian TV network and was only available online.

TV broadcasting rights for the competition had been up for sale two years before but no one was interested in buying them, the head of Romania’s public television network TVR explained later. Swimming doesn’t bring in high ratings and no one anticipated the Popovici phenomenon. In the end, from one day to the next, TVR did manage to buy broadcasting rights and aired the following races of David and Robert Glință, also a double finalist in Budapest.

This is what coach Rădulescu was happiest about. “I think it’s the best publicity for our sport. Maybe more people will watch swimming. Maybe more children will take up swimming. Maybe more of them will want to swim competitively. And maybe this will bring in more resources for those who already swim competitively but are trapped in that gray area between hope and certainty, where many get lost along the way.”

David was happy about it too. “On the internet it’s mostly die-hard fans who know where to go and what links to follow to watch the race. But TV is different and I think this sport deserves a lot more attention.”

After the world title, several Romanian newsrooms sent reporters to Budapest. Lacking media credentials, some television networks waited outside the arena to interview David, who only made a short statement at the end of the competition. This is something he and his team have learned in the past year: that they need to be stricter about his schedule, better organized, more careful with his time and energy. He shouldn’t stop whatever he’s doing. He shouldn’t hang out too long in the mixed area because he needs to get to recovery as soon as possible.

And he shouldn’t spend a lot of time on his phone. Like he did last spring, after qualifying for the Olympics. He was elated, he replied to messages, he went to bed late. The next day he had the 200m heats and, after the first lap, when he tried to speed up, he couldn’t. After Tokyo he also read messages and articles, gave interviews, attended events, but then he decided he needed to better sift through all the requests coming his way. “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? 

In Budapest, he only talked to his family a few times. He went on Instagram and even posted but left hundreds of messages unread. He knew the competition wasn’t over and he wanted to see his true potential for the week. “Why stop here if we did so well in the first two days?” 

“It’s a shame to work so hard and settle for less,” said Rădulescu. “Go all the way. Finish the job.”

In the 100m free heats, he swam 47.60 seconds, faster than world and Olympic champion Caeleb Dressel. Ahead of the semifinal though, the American swimmer, who had already won two world titles in Budapest, pulled out for medical reasons.

OK, David thought to himself. With or without the reigning champion in the next lane, he knew his race was against the stopwatch. And his times were better and better. He made the final with 47.13 seconds, the third junior world record he broke in Budapest, eliciting a sigh from his coach, who was filming the race from the bleachers. “We have doping testing again?”. It was the tenth best time ever.

The next day, ahead of the most important final in swimming, he was tenser. He shook his head nervously and his arms more aggressively. He wasn’t the first to start this time either, but one of the things that’s so special about him is the speed he reaches in the second half of the race. For the past 20 years, the 100m free has been dominated by explosive sprinters, with a lot of strength, who go out fast but are slower on the return. David is not that type of swimmer and Rădulescu thinks it’s time for a new way of swimming the 100m, where the best second half matters most.

David was the second to turn, after Canadian Joshua Liendo Edwards. In the last 25 meters he sped up and moved ahead. The ending was a close call but he knew he had won when he touched the wall and just one LED light lit up on the starting block. French swimmer Maxime Grousset got two lights and Liendo Edwards got three.

He breathed out in relief and turned around “with no stress or suspense” to see the scoreboard. He punched the water again but not as hard as that first night. He was more tired and not as happy with his time: 47.58, weaker than in the semifinals. He had focused so much on winning and not letting the others race past him, that he hadn’t paid as much attention to his technique. He wasn’t elated this time, just happy and “super relieved” to have won.

Elation abounded on the internet though. People congratulated him, thanked him and celebrated. They wrote that his win against superpowers in such a competitive sport was like Romania winning the World Cup in soccer. They congratulated his parents for the education and support they gave him and commended his coach for the way he shaped and guided him. They were outraged about the lack of government support. They talked about national pride and whether or not we have the right to be happy for his achievements: whether or not Romania deserves any credit.

In the bleachers, his mother didn’t see who had won and was afraid to look at the scoreboard. His father cried because it was a fantastic achievement to be the best swimmer in the world in two events. He didn’t know at that time his son was only the second swimmer in the history of the World Championships to win both titles in the same edition, after American swimmer Jim Montgomery 49 years ago. (Dutch swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband won both titles in the 2000 Olympics.)

That’s one thing that’s very impressive about him, Australian journalist Julian Linden told me. “The 200 traditionally used to be won by guys from the 100 going up, and then it sort of drifted away and it became 400 meters swimmers going back to 200, the guys who had the stamina. And he’s bringing the speed back into it. I think he’s changing the way the races are swam a bit.”

Adrian Rădulescu is 32 years-old and has a PhD in athletic performance. In the 10 years he has been training with David, he has discovered how to challenge and motivate him.

He celebrated the end of the competition at dinner with his family and team, at an Italian restaurant on the bank of the Danube, where he had lasagna, one of his favorites. There was barely any mention of the competition at dinner, just as they don’t talk about swimming at home. As they were leaving, outside the restaurant, he thought about what he should post on Instagram. He chose a picture of himself at the edge of the pool, glancing with a tired smile towards the bleachers where he had counted more Romanian flags than in the first days. From under a streetlight, he typed: “it was pretty cool : )”.

Shortly after returning from Budapest, he was out for a meal with his father and was wondering what he would do if someone asked him for a picture while he was eating. What would be the appropriate answer? “Really? Can’t you see I’m eating?” or “Of course.”? Then someone really did approach him and asked for a picture. He posed for pictures and signed autographs while he ate, then he and his father decided that in the future he would finish his meal first.

He is glad that people appreciate him and he always stops for pictures, but his popularity and the attention he got in Romania were overwhelming. Last summer, after the Olympics, he was recognized by maybe 4 out of 10 people but now everyone knows him. Everyone wants a picture. Everyone wants an autograph. There were fake TikTok accounts in his name. Tabloids wrote about his girlfriend. Brands wanted a piece of his popularity. Politicians congratulated him, gave him prizes and decorations. Prime minister Nicolae Ciucă shook his hand for so awkwardly long, the video went viral. Celebrities wrote on Facebook that he is a role model for the younger generation. He received thousands of congratulatory messages, collaboration proposals and requests for help, especially after he donated his swim cap and goggles from Budapest to a humanitarian campaign by Hope and Homes for Children. (He raised nearly 220,000 lei.) That first week after Budapest, he was stopped in the street every few steps.

He avoided leaving his house for a few days because he knew he would be overwhelmed. Because there were paparazzi waiting outside his apartment building, ready to pounce. But he realized this is not something he can control, that “that’s the way it’s always going to be if I continue to be this good. And I want to be this good”. He understood all he could do was to get used to this new way of life. “I need to accept and adapt to the fact that it comes with the territory… I’m famous now, whether I like it or not.” 

Both David and those around him handled the situation better than last year. His parents took over all the messages he would never have time to read. They said no more often, avoided public appearances and crowded places. They advised him not to read what people are posting about him online and not to read the comments, unless it’s something funny. If he wants to go out, it’s best to make a reservation and ask for a more private table. “It’s not impossible to handle, it’s doable with some logistical measures,” says his coach, who hopes that in time people will understand that he needs his privacy and quiet. That he needs to continue on his path and that, regardless of how much people root for him, at the end of the day he’s the one who must do the work in the pool.

In July, he wrote on Instagram that he was taking a break from social media, the same thing he did last fall. He was wasting too much time scrolling and he knew that too much attention is harmful. That the rush of dopamine from all the messages, comments and tags is temporary and can turn sour. “What matters is to be able to disconnect from the real world, from the world of comparisons, the world of social media, from anything that can hinder you from reaching your truly important goals,” he told journalists in Budapest. “No phone, lights off, that’s perfect.”

One week after Budapest, he competed again, this time in the Euro Juniors, hosted for the first time in Romania, in Otopeni. The construction of the biggest Olympic size swimming pool in the country had started 13 years before and had ended in 2021 but the place was only inaugurated this summer, under the pressure of this competition.

If the World Championships were all about time, he now wished to enjoy the home atmosphere, to win more medals for Romania and to be a good leader for his colleagues in the junior national team. In front of a full house, sold-out nearly every night, in front of his parents, school mates and teachers from the George Coșbuc high school, who wore T-shirts with his face, in front of his girlfriend, members of the Romanian band Subcarpați, who beat drums for him, in front of his grandmother who used to take him to the pool when he was little, in front of everyone who had always supported him but hadn’t had the chance to see him swim at such a high level, he won four gold medals (in the 50, 100, 200m free and the 4×100 relay) and one silver in the mixed 4×100 relay.

He entered the pool with goosebumps from the noise, nodding confidently to the beat of songs he had picked, like Rege pe deal by Subcarpați and Argatu and Queen’s Innuendo. He plunged into the pool wishing to make his country proud and to rise up to expectations. He breathed on the left side – he usually breathes on the right –, to get a better look at the waving flags and hands. He swam thinking about how loud people would scream when he would be the first to touch the wall and how nice it is to feel so much support. He ended each race with a bow to the audience, his way of thanking everyone who came from all over the country to see him, because he knew he couldn’t talk to each and every one of them.

Beyond the individual medals, which he expected to win, he was happiest about the gold medal with the relay. He enjoyed being part of a team, to fight together with his colleagues – Vlad Stancu, Ștefan Cozma, Alexandru Constantinescu and Patrick Dinu – and to climb the podium together, holding hands. He enjoyed watching them from the sidelines after swimming first, securing an advantage, even though he was more nervous than he would’ve been in the water. He yelled, he applauded, he gave them tips. He told reporters they had all worked just as hard and are just as good. He introduced each of them in front of the cameras and asked them how they felt. When he didn’t compete, he cheered from the bleachers for his training buddy Vlad Stancu, who at 16 won three individual medals (gold in the 1,500m and silver in the 400 and 800m free) and broke a national senior record that had been set before he was born. Bianca Costea won silver in the 50m free and Romania ended the Euros third, after Hungary and Poland.

They are valuable generations, say their coaches, who talk about a revival in Romanian swimming. There are generations for which David – and Robert Glință, who has been getting international results for a few years –, is a role model and a motivator, garnering public attention for swimming. “Championships are rarely broadcast live, perhaps world championships or the Olympics, and never junior championships. It’s fantastic that it happened,” says Iulia Becheru, Stancu’s coach and co-founder of NaVi. “At a time when sport is suffering in Romania, I think [David] is a breath of fresh air for Romanian sports as a whole,” adds Potec, president of the Federation. “And I think this is a moment that can inspire other athletes to want to win medals for Romania and not just in swimming.”

For David, who turns 18 in September, this was the last Euro Junior Championship. He ended the competition by throwing his swim cap into the audience like a rock star, with Queen bursting from the speakers.

“What did we do to deserve such a phenomenon?” asked TVR commentator Alina Alexoi after his last final.

“Romanians deserve this,” answered federation coach Silviu Anastase, who thinks David’s swimming style is unique. “They need this. Look at the atmosphere, the enthusiasm, look at how people are reacting, look at all the joy.”

“Thank you, David Popovici,” added Alexoi, “for bringing us so much joy.”

The first gold medal of the summer came at the World Championships in Budapest, in June, where David won the 200 m with the best time in 10 years, a new junior world record. Photo by Gian Mattia D’Alberto, LaPresse.

At the beginning of summer, David had two goals: to become the world’s best swimmer and to inspire people, especially children, to take up sports. After Budapest, swimming clubs in Bucharest were taken by storm and some of them are fully booked for beginners. The bleachers in Otopeni were full of children who waved at him while he swam and carried banners with his name. One kid wanted to see how strong he is and measured his muscles, then whispered in his ear that he was like the Hulk. Another waited for a few good minutes outside the pool, in the scorching sunlight, swim cap on, so David could sign it. He signed T-shirts, flags, bandanas and even their hands; for the younger kids he drew hearts and smiley faces. “Who else wants a picture?” he asked one night after 30 minutes of posing and signing and didn’t leave until everyone took their picture with him, children and adults, volunteers and staff.

Ever since he got back from Budapest, he carries black markers in his backpack for autographs. People stop him on the street to tell him they’ve taken up running again or that their son took up swimming after seeing him swim. One evening in July, he noticed there were more children than usual at the pool at 6 PM, when he finishes his second practice of the day. He asked his coach if that was true or just his impression.

“You did a good thing,” he said.

It’s his favorite part of everything he has achieved so far. That he popularized “this sport we all love”, that he convinced people of all ages to exercise, because that’s where he gets his energy, optimism and confidence. “These things truly make me happy.”

He also knows that Michael Phelps, whose book No Limits he has read twice, set out early in his career to change swimming in America and make it more popular. Fueled by his results, the sport attracted more athletes, a wider audience, and bigger investments, which benefited other swimmers as well. The best example of this impact, says David, is that now, regardless of where the Olympics are hosted, the swimming final is held in prime-time in the United States. Even if that means competing in the morning, local time, like he did in the two finals in Tokyo. “That’s one of the major changes he made, he took swimming into NBC prime time. He was tired of basketball, baseball, American football. He wanted to see swimming. And he did it.”

There are things David wants to change as well but consistency is required, says Rădulescu, because Romania doesn’t have a sports culture. Just 267,000 Romanians watched his 100m final in Budapest, placing TVR fourth in the national ratings ranking (after the main news program on Pro TV, the news program on Antena 1 and a Turkish TV series on Happy Channel, in the same interval) and third in the urban ranking.

When he returned from Budapest, he was greeted at the airport by more than 15 TV camera crews – more than for soccer, one reporter noted. At the press conference held at the airport, Glință thanked him for drawing attention to swimming. “I’ve never felt so special or had so much support. And this is also largely thanks to David. Without his humongous results, I wouldn’t have had this much support. Thank you, I’m happy to be your contemporary.”

It’s great that swimming is talked about on TV and in the media, says Rădulescu, or that parents who were perhaps undecided about taking their children to swimming have now done it. “But real impact must be of a different nature. And it needs to come primarily from policymakers.” Through infrastructure and logistics, more money to grassroots sports, more support for sports clubs and institutions.

Otherwise, the road to performance remains muddled in uncertainty, based on exceptions and individual efforts, as it was with David, supported by his parents until the first international results. “If we hadn’t persevered and he hadn’t persevered and his coach hadn’t persevered, he had every chance to get lost along the way,” says David’s father. “Because in Romania there are no systems to stimulate a child of 10, 11 or 13 to continue.”

Now he is among the few athletes who have full support – from the Federation, the Romanian Olympic Committee, from Dinamo club – for everything he needs: training camps abroad, a full team of international experts, supplements and recovery. But he knows he is in a position of privilege and not all Romanian athletes have the same conditions he does. “If everyone had the same attention, time and resources that are now directed at me, and I’m talking about all my athlete colleagues, the sport would be much more developed in our country.”

He wishes his colleagues had the same support, even in earlier stages; for the pool at Lia Manoliu, as well as others in the country, to be renovated (in winter he trains inside a balloon covering the outdoor pool because the indoor pool has been awaiting renovations for more than four years). He wants more sports facilities in schools, so that sports can be better interwoven with education. He wishes for the regulation of university athletics, for students to have more physical education classes and for sports performance scholarships.

In June, at the European Junior Championships in Otopeni, David Popovici won four gold medals and one silver. He ended each race with a bow to the public. Photo by George Călin, Inquam Photos.

Apart from using his achievements for public relations, the attention he has drawn from politicians could be a catalyst for change. The politicians he has met with have promised him more sports facilities and the renovation of the Lia Manoliu pool. When he bestowed on him the Order of the Star of Romania, the country’s highest civil order, president Klaus Iohannis said sport should become a priority and called on central and local authorities for increased investments, modern infrastructure and a clear strategy. The new Olympic-sized swimming pool in Târgu-Mureș opened this summer after it stayed shut down for a year. The one in Otopeni remained open after the Euros and coaches are hoping other projects that have been on hold for a long time will reopen this fall.

Making sport a national priority is their mission as well, David said at his meeting with the president: “We want to encourage children to be more active, we want to have a healthier society, to educate people on sports and have better conditions for exercise, because we think this will make a much better world.”

In Rome, in August, David set a senior world record for 100 m: 46.86. Kristóf Milák, who holds the record for 200 m butterfly, clapped and said: „Welcome to the club”. Photo by Gian Mattia D’Alberto, LaPresse.

Besides encouraging people to exercise, his story also inspires hope. After two rough years, a pandemic and a war across the border, in a country mired in economic recession and with little to be optimistic about, the 17 year-old swimmer has fascinated people because he gave them a reason to look confidently towards the future, a shared joy that has brought people together.

“Their story suggests one can be a champion from Romania, while playing by the rules, with all its drawbacks, festering wounds and all the muck,” sociologist Dani Sandu wrote on Facebook. “David, it feels like a beautiful dream. After so many troubles that seemed never-ending, you came along and brought us so much joy,” one user on YouTube commented. “His story is proof that we’re still living in good times, a change is still possible,” someone else wrote.

“If the hope I have stirred means positive emotion, the confidence that good things can happen, trust in a brighter future or other children following my example, then yes, I do feel responsible and I want us to do all we can to change the world,” David said in an interview for the RoMâine platform of private health care provider MedLife, one of his sponsors.

The enthusiasm he stirred was written all over the smiles and the faces of the people who filled the bleachers at the junior competition. It showed in everything that was written about the model of discipline, passion and consistency he is for other youngsters; about the parenting and mentoring lessons from his parents and coach; about what you gain when you work to improve yourself, not for laurels or medals.

“It took 32 years to have an athlete with a message, with charisma, born in a young generation, one that came after the Revolution,” Anastase said on TVR. “He is an inspiration and everyone can take something from his example, apply it in other fields and disciplines and achieve wonderful things. We have to do something with all this enthusiasm, these major achievements, with what this youngster is offering Romania.”

Because they are his best achievements yet, the World Championships medals are the only ones David keeps in his room for now. They’re not on display, because he doesn’t want to see them every day, but kept in a box on his bookshelf, so he can look at them every now and then and remember what it was like. Not just winning but the people he met or saw again, the atmosphere in the arena, the days after the competition, when he rode an electric kick scooter through the city, rested and ate well. “It’s more about what they mean to me than the fact that they are big, heavy gold medals and they represent victory and number one. No, what’s important is that they remind me of the great time I had there.”

He is careful with them but he thinks there will come a time when he’ll put them in his box of medals, mascots and other souvenirs, because he doesn’t like to live in the past. Just as he doesn’t like to live in the future either, for it is “unpredictable and just another form of imagination”, as he told one foreign reporter in Budapest. “I want to be my best self every day.”

After Budapest and Otopeni, he only had one day off. He then resumed daily practice at 7 AM and at 6:30 AM on days when he has strength training as well. Because he still has things to improve, to perfect, to show. Because he loves swimming and it is for that reason that he believes success and fame won’t change who he is. And because he wants to make his mark. He wants to push the sport forward, to bring freshness, to innovate. This, he thinks, is the job of younger generations: to try and outdo the ones that came before. “It’s not arrogance if you can prove it,” he said on the podcast Inside with Brett Hawke about the senior records he felt he could break in the future. 

“Look how beautiful this pool is,” his coach told him on August 13, a few minutes before the 100m free final at the European Senior Championships in Rome. They were in the athletes’ stall and were looking at the outdoor pool surrounded by pine trees at the Foro Italico, built in the 1930s. It’s David’s favorite, the place where last year, at the Euro Juniors, he stepped into the big swimming world and where 43 world records were broken at the World Championships of 2009 alone.

“Yes, it is beautiful,” he answered and then went down to the pool for the start of the race. During the heats, he had set a new record of the competition, at 47.20. In the semifinals, a junior European and world record, 46.98, making him the fourth swimmer in history to go below 47 seconds, and the youngest ever. He had the fastest time ever in the second lap (24.05) and was 0.07 seconds shy of the senior world record (46.91) set by Brazilian swimmer César Cielo in 2009, also in Rome, when David was 4 years old.

In the bleachers, at the press table, on social media, there was talk of what it would mean for him to break the most coveted record in swimming. “That would be one of the greatest achievements in swimming history,” Linden had told me in Budapest. “When you break a world record, you exceed 100% of what humanity has known until then,” his coach had said.

David hopes that his fame will mean more resources are allocated for swimming, more pools built or renovated, and more parents will bring their kids to swimming lessons.

If in Budapest he felt the pressure, this time he decided it’s OK if he doesn’t win. He didn’t think about the European champion title, not even about the record, but focused on execution. While warming up, he applauded his rivals when they were introduced. He wasn’t the first to start, nor the first to turn after the first lap. But he paid more attention to his underwater undulations, his turns, the efficiency of his movements and swam his best race yet. After 75 meters, his coach, watching from the bleachers, knew exactly what was about to happen. David, too, felt he was fast enough but after hitting the wall, he took off his goggles and checked the scoreboard to make sure. He smiled and punched the water when he saw his time of 46.86. Next to the score, a yellow box read WR (World Record).

The noise that followed will stay with him for the rest of his life. The audience – Italians but also many Romanians – stood up and applauded for a long time, producing 117.5 decibels, as loud as a plane taking off. He lifted himself up on the lane divider and, with open arms, egged the crowd on to make more noise, while Hungarian Kristóf Milák, who won second place, applauded from the sideline. “Welcome to the club,” said the 22 year-old swimmer who holds the world record in the 200m butterfly. David punched the water again and touched his fist to his chest. His parents were crying in the bleachers and his coach, whose colleagues on staff said they’d never seen so happy, thought: “I wonder how many people truly understood what just happened.”

He had become the fastest swimmer in history, his childhood dream, and he had done it differently than Cielo had in 2009, coming back faster in the second half. “It’s simply a different approach,” said Rădulescu, who had watched the Brazilian’s race hundreds of times. David was also the first ever to swim under 47 seconds twice. And, as with the 200, he had surpassed his own goals, managing a better time than his record-breaking objective of 46.89 set the year before.

He got out of the water and turned to the bleachers arms wide open, as if wanting to hug the entire arena. He then took a bow, like he did in Otopeni. In the interview after the final, when BBC journalists called him a swimming legend, he joked he was more of a Skinny Legend and said he dreams of going below 46 seconds. That evening, back at the hotel, he watched his own race again a few times. He knew he was watching the fastest swimmer ever and on top of it all, it was him.

“I knew this day was coming and it did,” Cielo wrote in a congratulatory message on Twitter. “Glad to have had this huge record for so long. There is a new fastest man in the world in the 100 meters freestyle and he is just getting started!”. “Who said the suit record couldn’t be broken?” said former Australian Olympian Brett Hawke, Cielo’s coach at that time. “Not only was it broken, but it was broken by a 17 year-old, that’s how possible it is. 13 years later, in the same pool, under the same conditions. It’s beautiful. Couldn’t be any better.” “That’s fast!! Congrats @chlorinedaddy,” Michael Phelps wrote on Instagram – the message he was happiest about.

David found it odd to live that moment without checking social media, without seeing its impact in Romania and in the swimming world. He hadn’t planned to stay off Instagram until Rome but he didn’t want to lose his focus. The next day he had three other races to swim: 200m free heats and semifinals and the 4x100m relay heats (where they didn’t make the final). 

He hadn’t set a certain time goal for the 200m free final, one he and his coach hadn’t talked about much. On the day of the final, he asked him: “OK, what’s the plan, how do we play this?” and Rădulescu answered: “How about you try something crazy?”.

He started slower than in Budapest but recouped again on the last lap, where he was nearly one second faster. At the end, when he saw his time of 1:42.97, a junior world record, his first thought was that Phelps had made 1:42.96. “Aaah, just 0.01,” he thought and put out his tongue. But he was not disappointed because he knows he has all the time in the world. He was the third fastest in history, after Paul Biedermann, who holds the senior world record (1:42.00), and Phelps, but the first in a textile suit (the American swimmer’s was part polyurethane).

“This guy is insane,” whispered kinesiotherapist Valentin Grigoraș, who was waiting for him by the side of the pool to measure his lactic acid levels to see how tired he was. “There are no more rules or barriers. This isn’t in any of the books,” said his strength coach Dragoș Luscan. “There’s swimming before David and then there’s swimming after David Popovici,” said Anastase. 

“David Popovici is alone on his planet,” L’Équipe wrote. “He reminds me of Michael Phelps at a very young age,” said Bob Bowman, the American swimmer’s former coach. “Another day in which David Popovici makes you question everything you knew about swimming,” a SwimSwam commentator said, and Swimming World Magazine called him a “generational talent”.

“I like to think I have no limits,” David said after the race. “And I wish everyone would think that about themselves – that they can surpass any limits.”

David’s parents, Georgeta and Mihai Popovici, have always supported him without pressuring him, and without talking about records at home. Photo from the archives of Camelia Potec.

He celebrated the world record at the hotel, with his team and his parents and a few pizza boxes spread out on the massage table. He still had to compete in the 400m free, where he qualified with the fourth best time, although he’d never swam this event before at a major competition. After the heats, he and his coach decided he would withdraw. He was tired after all the effort of an intense week and they wanted to avoid overexertion, especially since he had one last major summer competition. 

Two days after Rome he left for Lima for the Junior World Championships, his last official competition as a junior, where he could become the first swimmer to win the 100m and 200m gold medals in two Euro juniors and seniors and two World juniors and seniors. (This story was published before the start of the competition. In Lima, David won four more golds – in 100 and 200m free and with the men’s 4x100m relay – and one silver with the mixed relay. At the end of the summer he owned 9 of the 10 fastest times in the world this year and became the only swimmer who holds 3 of the 10 fastest performances of all time in the men’s 100 free.)

He will then have his first vacation after his busiest summer so far. On September 15 he turns 18 and he’s thinking about getting a tattoo. He starts 12th grade and will return to practice, thinking of the competitions to come: World short-course in Melbourne in December, next summer’s World Championship in Fukuoka, and in December 2023, the first Euro seniors (short-course) to be hosted in Romania. And in two year’s time, the Olympic Games in Paris, his main goal for the upcoming years.

One day this fall he will again pick up a sheet of paper and a marker and will set his goals for next summer, for him and his coach to know. They will be tougher and more challenging because that’s what he’s always after, outdoing himself. That’s why he swims. Not to win a race or a medal, and he hopes these will never be his motivation. He wants to see just how good he can get.

Very likely, he will continue to win. He is at the start of a career that many expect will be legendary and full of records, and he wants to compete in three more Olympic Games. But it will be just as exciting to watch the splashes he makes around the pool as he gets faster and faster in it. How many question marks will he raise. How much joy will he bring people and how many children will he inspire. Perhaps even how many pools will be built and renovated. Perhaps what will change in Romanian sports, in the way we think about athletic performance and grassroot sports; in the type of education we offer athletes and children. Perhaps even what will change in ourselves, all of us who are fascinated by him. How we become better versions as well, more interested in our own lane, our own time, our own growth. How we’re imagining a better future and how hard we’re working for it.