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From ‘Random Happenstance’ To Gold Medals: Erin Popovich Reflects On Career

By Sheridan Powell | July 22, 2020, 6:40 p.m. (ET)

Erin Popovich celebrates after winning the gold medal at the 2008 Paralympic Games.

Erin Popovich celebrates winning Gold in the women's 200m individual medley - SM7  on Sept. 7, 2008 in Beijing, China.

Erin Popovich attributes her beginning in swimming to “random happenstance.” The nineteen-time Paralympic medalist actually spent most of her time playing soccer as a kid. Her whole family was into soccer, and they frequently traveled around each weekend to various tournaments. However, around the age of 12, Popovich realized that the kids around her on the field were growing a lot faster than she was, and she could no longer be as competitive as she wanted to be. Popovich was born with achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that restricted the growth of her limbs. Rather than retire from sports all together, Popovich looked for another opportunity to satisfy her competitive edge. Thanks to the recommendation from some friends at school, she joined the local swim club. 

Only six short months after she tried the sport for the first time, Popovich had the opportunity to compete at the USA Swimming Disability National Championships in Minneapolis. Her coach at the time saw she met the qualifying times. 

“She said, ‘If you do really well you can make a world championship team,’ ” Popovich explained. “And I said…..’what’s that?’ ” 

The Popovic family made the journey to Minneapolis from their small hometown in Montana. There, on her 13th birthday, she not only qualified for the world championship team, but broke a world record. 

Popovich, who qualified for her first Games in 2000 and went a perfect seven-for-seven four years later at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, has an extensive list of career accomplishments. In 2005, she was awarded an ESPY for Best Female Athlete with a Disability in the inauguration of the award. (Spoiler alert: she won the award AGAIN four years later in 2009). But to Popovich, one of her favorite memories was more of a team effort. 

Be prepared to experience and see things you didn’t think were possible. Not only of the human spirit, but of the physical nature of athletes.

On the final night at the Games in Athens, Popovich was set to compete in the 4x100m relay with three of her teammates. 

“We won that gold medal going in as the underdog, but we had a little bit of a chance. So to culminate the perfect Games by standing on top of the podium with three other teammates that all helped and pushed me to get there was this amazing conclusion of events that all came together,” Popovich said. 

After qualifying for three Paralympic Games and setting numerous world records, Popovich made the decision to retire from the sport. 

“I was really fortunate that I got to retire how I wanted to. It really came down to the fact that I just wasn’t enjoying the practice, the training, the day in day out stuff anymore.” Popovich explained. 

She explained that she felt she had accomplished everything she had wanted to in her career, and was ready to challenge herself in a new and exciting way. Of course, she capped off an incredible career with an incredible final meet - she took home five silver medals at the IPC Swimming World Championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands in 2010. 

Since her retirement, Popovich has worked at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. Although she bounced between a few roles initially, two years ago she found herself with the opportunity to return to U.S. Paralympics Swimming, this time in a different capacity. Popovich works closely with the national team to coordinate competitions, travel and domestic events as well. 

“It was really exciting and fun to be back home with a sport I knew and understood - although it has changed tremendously since I was involved almost 10 years ago.”

She explained that working so closely with the sport, as well as U.S. Paralympics, has allowed her to see all of the ways it has changed since she was an athlete. 

“To fast forward 10 years and see that Paralympic athletes are featured in mainstream media, in sponsorships, seeing them featured in advertisements...it’s just really exciting to see.” 

Popovich adds that it's truly the continuous development in skill and competition that continue to push the Paralympics forward. The fierce competition, the new technology and adaptations, new training opportunities - all contribute to continuing to make the Paralympics grow.

To fans new to the Paralympic movement, Popovich said, with a smile: “Be prepared to experience and see things you didn’t think were possible. Not only of the human spirit, but of the physical nature of athletes. It’s a great life and it’s a great sport and we can prove that we’re not afraid of anything life hands us.” 

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Erin Popovich