Erin Popovich celebrates after the women's 100-meter freestyle S7 final at the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008 on Sept. 8, 2008 in Beijing, China.
At the age of 15, swimmer Erin Popovich won six medals in her Paralympic debut, and she went on from there to accumulate so much hardware and set so many world records that it earned her a spot in the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame, class of 2019.
A career such as that takes hard work, determination, training and sacrifice to a level most people will never understand, but something else stands out when Popovich looks back.
She always enjoyed what she did.
“One of the parts I always loved about the competition was it was always fun for me,” Popovich said. “I enjoyed being with my teammates and the rivalries and the competition, and when it came down to it I could be serious. When I got into the ready room and walked out on deck it was all business, but it was just one of those things that I was fortunate to be able to separate out the fun of it and keep that more the focus.”
Born with a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that restricts the growth of the limbs, Popovich ended her career with 19 Paralympic medals, including 14 golds, in three trips to the Games. World records tended to topple when she entered the water, too. She set four at the 2000 Paralympic Games, three in 2004 and broke another two in 2008. Known for her versatility, Popovich medaled in the freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke, individual medley and relays at varying distances. She retired in 2010 after winning five silver medals at those world championships, and in September was announced as an inductee to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame.
“You look at all the others in the running for it and every single athlete deserves a spot,” said Popovich, now 34, who got the news while on vacation in Ireland. “It’s very humbling to even know you’re one of the finalists. It’s really a true testament to the depth and range of athletes in the U.S., which is really cool to see.”
Going to Sydney in 2000 was an experience like none other, Popovich said, starting with the walk into the Opening Ceremony with the lights and the crowds and the vibration of the stadium.
“There were 110,000 people that stadium,” said Popovich, from Butte, Montana. “You’re going, ‘Wow, this is three times the size of my hometown.’ The sheer energy that was in there is something I’ll never forget.”
That was the year Julie Dussliere, the former coach and high-performance director for U.S. Paralympics Swimming and current chief of Paralympic sport at the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, got to know Popovich.
“It was clear that she had all the attributes of an elite athlete, whether it was the intangibles like work ethic and mental fortitude, all those sort of things, to what it took to be an elite swimmer in Para sports,” Dussliere said. “Over the next four years she started to really, really excel at the elite level. Not only did she get faster but the sport and Para movement as a whole was growing and getting more competitive. When she won seven golds in Athens, that was the tipping point.”
By then, Popovich was in college at Colorado State University.
John Mattos was the head coach of the swim team then, and he remembers Popovich and her mother coming into his office.
“She was considering schools and I believe she’d just gotten accepted to CSU and they were talking about Erin, what kind of a swimmer she was, and I said that hell, we’d love to have her on the team,” he recalled. “She said she couldn’t believe I was saying that because every coach she talked to about possibly swimming on the team said there was no way she could swim with the team. I said, ‘I don’t think that.’”
Popovich trained and competed alongside her able-bodied teammates and said that being part of a Division I program was invaluable in her development as an athlete.
“John and (current coach) Woody Woodard gave me a chance, and they didn’t have to do that,” she said. “They could have said you’re not quite our caliber of D1 athlete, but they gave me a shot and it was an incredible opportunity. … Even though their goals in the end were conference and NCAA championships and mine was the Paralympic Games, we still had that commonality of wanting to swim our best times, really focus and be a team, and all those accumulated into helping me move forward and factored into helping me grow as an athlete and a person.”
One of Popovich’s favorite races of her Paralympic career was the 4x100-meter freestyle on the last day of competition in Athens. The Americans knew they had a strong team going in, but in the Paralympic Games the relays are based off points and you can have athletes of different classes competing against one another, she said, so things can change dramatically throughout the race.
“I was in the anchor spot and I remember getting up on the block and looking over, and I think it was either Canada or Australia there was an S9 up against me so I was like, ‘Oh dear God, please get me a lead,’” said Popovich, whose freestyle classification was S6 (the lower the number, generally, the more limited the athletes are). “I remember diving in and by that point it was day 10 of the meet, your body’s exhausted, but I gave it every ounce of my soul and when I touched the wall and realized we won gold… to win gold in the relay is one of the most amazing things, to know it took all four girls to get to that point and that everyone had to put in everything they had.
“I thought about everything that went into it — my last couple years of training, the move to Colorado State and everything that factored into it. To stand on top of that podium that final night and receive gold and realize it was my seventh gold of the Games was pretty damn incredible.”
For Dussliere, the race that best typified Popovich as an athlete came four years later in Beijing. The 100-meter breaststroke had always been one of Popovich’s strengths, but leading up to Beijing she’d gone through a bit of a slump. Going into the final there were a number of talented athletes, and Dussliere remembers asking another member of the team who was going to win.
He said Popovich.
“I said, ‘I agree, but tell me why,’ and he said, ‘Because everyone else in that pool wants to win but she doesn’t want to lose,’” Dussliere recalled. “That captured 100 percent why she was so successful. It isn’t all about winning, and there is a difference. There’s a big difference in attitude and how you go about something when you want to win versus you’ll do anything to not lose.”
Popovich won her third 100-meter breaststroke gold medal that year.
After retiring as an athlete, Popovich began working for the now-USOPC and is currently an associate director of U.S. Paralympics Swimming, using her insight and experience to help the next generations find their own success in the pool. That includes enjoying their team and having fun.
“We had an awesome group of swimmers and got very close and had a lot of fun together,” she said. “We were extremely supportive of each other, and we played pranks and did fun stuff, but when it came down to business everyone knew we had a goal and did everything they could to help the team and to get medals for our country. It’s a very competitive environment and everyone wants the same thing — to get to the top of the podium — but I’m very grateful for all the fun we had and all the fun we made. As long as it was fun, that’s what kept me going.”