Making a Big Splash

May 29, 2008, 10:21 p.m. (ET)

Erin Popovich is the picture of a typical college graduate. Dressed casually in jeans and a sweater, Popovich had just finished her morning swim workout. But there are two things that set Popovich apart - she was born with achondroplasia, a genetic disorder and the most common form of dwarfism; and at just under 4 feet 5 inches, she is a world and paralympic champion swimmer.

Erin Popovich shows off her gold medal at the Paralympics.

Erin Popovich has won numerous Paralympic gold medals for her swimming prowess.

Popovich, a December 2007 Health and Exercise Science graduate, is quick to smile and laugh, and her sense of humor shines through as she describes growing up with a disability in Butte, Mont. She describes Butte as a great place to grow up - full of down-to-earth people where everybody knows everybody.

Popovich learned to ride a horse at an early age on the 80 acres of land her family owns. "I just shortened the stirrups, got a leg up, and off I went," she says with a laugh. Showing horses was one of many athletic pursuits she took part in as a child.

Typical childhood

The youngest of three children, Popovich describes a typical childhood with sibling arguments and a family who never made special exceptions for her. She was diagnosed at six months and went through several treatments that helped her develop physically. She wore a cast around her trunk for a few months when she was only six months old to keep her back straight.

When she was five years old, she was prescribed hard plastic braces to prevent her legs from becoming bowlegged. She chose hot pink for the color. In the summer they were horribly hot and uncomfortable and she would resort to wearing tights or using baby powder to ease the sticking. "To this day, I hate tights and the smell of baby powder," Popovich says laughing again.

Joined the swim club at age 12

When the other children on her team started hitting growth spurts, Popovich decided to quit playing competitive soccer, one of her favorite sports. Getting kicked in the face was becoming a likelier prospect, so she decided to join the swim club in 1998 at age 12.

She went to swim meets around the state, and soon she achieved qualifying times for the national disability championships. In June 1998, she swam at the nationals in Minneapolis after swimming competitively for only six months.

Popovich describes the nationals as an eye-opening experience. She says, "Everyone was either on crutches, in a wheelchair, or had a prosthetic. But they were fast! I walked in focusing on disabilities, but came away amazed at what people can accomplish." In spite of being terribly nervous, she qualified for the world championships.

Popovich's achievements since she began swimming are nothing short of phenomenal. At her first International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Championships in New Zealand in 1998, she won four gold medals and a bronze. At the Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000, she won three gold medals, three silver medals, and set four world records.

Erin Popovich celebrating a victory in the pool.

Popovich's achievements in swimming are nothing short of phenomenal.

Dominance in paralymic swimming

But her most inspired performance was at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, where she competed in seven events (five individual and two relays) and brought home an astounding seven gold medals. In 2006, she came close to topping that at the IPC World Championships in Durban, South Africa, setting two world records and winning six gold medals and two silver medals.

In 2005, Popovich was recognized for her dominance in paralympic swimming. She won an ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete with a Disability from ESPN, and was named Individual Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation.

Trained at Colorado State

Growing up, Popovich always loved Colorado, and when she visited CSU, she fell in love with Fort Collins. After learning about the Department of Health and Exercise Science and talking with swim coach John Mattos, she decided to attend CSU. The potential to train with a Division I swim team, ski, and be outdoors sealed her decision.

Mattos says, "Erin is not your typical collegiate student-athlete. She is determined to succeed, works hard, and displays a positive 'can do' attitude. She's respected, admired, and loved by her teammates because she trains tall even though she walks small. She is an inspiration to all of us."

Next up for Popovich is the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, Sept. 6-17. In April, she qualified for her third Paralympic Games as a member of the U.S. Paralympic Swim Team. She participated in a goodwill tour in Beijing last summer in anticipation of the 2008 Games.

"The best thing about the Paralympic Games is that stereotypes are dispelled."

Erin Popovich

"The best thing about the Paralympic Games is that stereotypes are dispelled," says Popovich. "You see someone in a wheelchair or with a certain disability and instead of dwelling on their problems, you see they are focused on what they can achieve. I'm blown away by their abilities."

Laughter and optimism

As far as accommodations, Popovich says she has pedal extenders in her car so she can drive, and often uses a foot stool at home. But in a world designed for taller people, kitchen cabinets and grocery store shelves provide a particular challenge, which she manages with laughter and optimism.

"I know I can't reach everything in life; my friends tease me, but I'm not afraid to ask for help! I've learned a lot through my experiences. Some people are open about their disability and some are not. I want to be open and in the process open people's eyes to new experiences."