PHOENIX, Arizona, In a regular series to appear on SwimmingWorldMagazine.com in the coming year, we will be featuring some of the top American Paralympian swimmers. We start today with one of the leaders of the Paralympic national team: Erin Popovich.
A 2005 Swimming World Magazine World Disabled Female Swimmer of the Year, Popovich has grown from a breakout star in her first Paralympic Games in 2000 to a team leader in her third Paralympics held in Beijing in 2008. During her remarkable career, Popovich has won an incredible 14 career Paralympic gold medals and has become the definition of success in the sport.
"I think the biggest thing that motivates or drives me is competition," Popovich said. "I love it when you're staring someone down the last 50 meters, and putting everything you can on the line to get your fingers on the wall first."
She began her elite-level career with three golds and three silvers at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, before posting a Spitzian seven golds in seven races at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Last year, she claimed four golds and two silvers at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. She has done it all while proudly wearing the Red, White and Blue for the U.S.
"There is nothing like hearing our national anthem being played above all others in a foreign country, and seeing our flag raised above all other, feeling the medal being placed around your neck and knowing that everything you've done over the last four years has finally paid off," Popovich said. "I love that feeling, and after every time I know I want to be back atop the medal stand in another four years representing my country, my team, my family, and everyone that has helped me out along the way."
Popovich has definitely had a strong supporting cast along the way. As is usually the case, she has a strong family foundation with father Keith, mother Barb, brother Nathan and sister Kathrine providing the emotional support every elite-level athlete tends to have.
"My family has been incredibly influential in my success," Popovich said. "From the very beginning when I started swimming, they've always attended my meets and are always the loud crazy fans in the stands. They showed me very early that I could accomplish anything I wanted in life. It may not always be easy or a direct path, but if I tried hard enough I would succeed."
Additionally, Popovich has had a pair of strong support structures in the Butte Tarpons Swim Team and the Colorado State University team. Meanwhile. The U.S. Paralympic staff has always been available to assist Popovich in her success.
"My coaches and teammates both here at Colorado State University and on the U.S. Paralympic National team have taught me so much, whether it be in swimming or life. I consider myself very lucky and blessed to have the support that I do in my life."
Popovich has had a long journey from her beginnings in Silver Bow and Butte, Montana. She grew up in Butte and swam for the Butte Tarpons Swim Team (BTST) for five years before moving to Fort Collins, Colo., to attend Colorado State University (CSU).
"BTST gave me my start in swimming, and really helped me learn technique and strokes. When I moved down to CSU, I gained a whole new appreciation for swimming," Popovich said. "They worked so much harder, and the intensity and motivation was much higher. John Mattos is the head coach at CSU, and has helped my strokes in so many ways. He has helped me improve in every way possible and that is what has made me improve so much over the years. It's always interesting to try new things and see how your body adjusts and that's a lot of fun. I train with the CSU Swim Team, so there are about 30 girls on the team right now. We train hard and we have a lot of fun. It's a blast!"
Popovich's rare experience has definitely turned her into a leader on the national team roster. In 2000, she was one of the youngest members on the team at 15. Now, she's 23 with a birthday coming up in June.
"I do find myself in the leadership role now," Popovich said. "In 2000, I was one of the youngest members of the team. In 2004, we had a very young team and I was one of the older members, which was a big change but fun. In 2008, I was still one of the older members, but enjoyed it so much. It's weird to see how quickly the roles can change, but it's also exciting. It doesn't seem like I've been around for this long. I love it when the rookies ask questions, like 'What do we do?'; 'How do you handle the pressure?'; 'Are we going to have a curfew?'; and the list could go on. It's fun to talk about previous experiences that I've had, and hopefully help them out. I know I can't answer everything, and what I might say not always work for them. But, it's fun to listen and hear their responses."
Popovich competes in the S7 division. S1-S10 are physical classifications, while S11-S13 are for the visually impaired. Everyone is placed within these classifications through the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) functional classification system. This process is required in order to compete in an IPC approved/sanctioned meet.
Popovich was born with achondroplasia, which is a genetic disorder impacting bone growth from the time of birth. The disorder typically leads to shortened limbs, which have not kept Popovich from being a world-class athlete along with the standard training that lifestyle implies.
"I compete against people with cerebral palsy, strokes (with limited use of one side of their body), spinabifida, les autres, these could all vary within each disability," Popovich said. "I train with Colorado State University. I do all the practices they do with some modifications. For the most part, I can keep up with the girls. But, on sets that I can't, we either adjust the intervals and change the distance. So on 75s on the 1:00, I'll go 75s on 1:05. I love training with the girls because they push me. I have to work hard to keep up with them, and that helps my training out a lot. I don't get any slack for being a bit slower and smaller than them, and that's the way I like it. It helps me train at a higher level and compete stronger."
With Popovich still training, there's definitely a chance that she could be competing in her fourth straight Paralympic Games when 2012 comes around.
Reprinted with the express, written consent of Swimming World Magazine.