Sophia Herzog, who will compete at this weekend's Jimi Flowers Classic, races at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
Erin Popovich met Jimi Flowers in the early 2000s when she was a highly decorated swimmer and he was managing the aquatic center at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Popovich described Flowers as “a larger-than-life person” who went above and beyond to help people. He was known for standing on the pool deck and saying hello to friends by hollering, “Yo, what’s up?!”
Popovich got to know Flowers even better after he started working as the U.S. Paralympics Swimming national team manager and resident team coach in 2007. By then, she was on her way to becoming a 19-time Paralympic medalist with 14 golds.
“He’s always such a positive person,” said Popovich, who’s now the director for U.S. Paralympics Swimming. “Even on his worst days or my worst days, there’s always some amount of positivity or life lessons to what you’re going through that he could help instill.”
Flowers passed away following a climbing accident on July 10, 2009. Thirteen years later, U.S. Paralympics Swimming is continuing to honor his memory with the Jimi Flowers Classic, a long-course meet held annually at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center.
Around 48 swimmers are expected to compete on Saturday and Sunday when the Jimi Flowers Classic returns after last year’s event was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The field for this weekend’s races, though smaller than in years past, includes swimmers of all levels. They range from newcomers hoping to learn more about the sport to Paralympic gold medalists McKenzie Coan, Robert Griswold and Elizabeth Marks.
Popovich said those two very different groups will get the opportunity to interact on the pool deck, which is what she feels makes the Jimi Flowers Classic such an intriguing event.
“It’s a great meet for new athletes because it’s not got all of the pomp and circumstance,” Popovich said. “At the same time, we have some of our Paralympic champion athletes and everybody from the grassroots up to our most elite athletes at this event.”
The Jimi Flowers Classic will be held less than a month after the top American swimmers competed at the Para Swimming World Championships in Madeira, Portugal.
Coan, a six-time Paralympic medalist, earned five medals in Madeira and won world titles in the 50-meter freestyle, the 100-meter freestyle and the 400-meter freestyle.
Griswold, meanwhile, competed in seven events over seven days at the world championships. The two-time Paralympian medaled in all but one event, including golds in the 100-meter backstroke, the 100-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley.
In total, 10 Americans who’ve earned at least one medal at a world championships are expected to compete at the Jimi Flowers Classic, including two-time Paralympic medalists Colleen Young, Sophia Herzog and Julia Gaffney.
While Popovich expects the races this weekend to be competitive, she said the Paralympians in attendance won’t feel the pressure to perform like they did in Madeira or last summer’s Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“In my opinion, it’s a great refresh to them because it’s not about, ‘I’ve got to make this qualifying cut or I’ve got to make this standard,’” Popovich said. “It’s not so much about the actual competition, but they get to interact and have flashbacks to what it was like when they first came onto the Paralympic scene and saw their idols and said, ‘Wow, look at this.’
“It’s an opportunity for them to say (to the newcomers), ‘Hey guys, I was you at one point and here’s what I can do.’”
If the Jimi Flowers Classic will serve as a “refresh” for the Paralympians, Popovich said it’ll be a “great stepping-stone” for newcomers who’ll get to race at the historic Olympic & Paralympic Training Center.
Popovich said all the proceeds from the meet will go to Flowers’ family. She has watched his children grow up over the years, and they’ve returned with his wife to volunteer at the event and help like he was known to do.
“And so I think that’s part of the legacy that lives on with him. We want to continue to build the movement,” Popovich said. “We want to continue to see athletes come into the program and find Paralympic swimming and really grow and find those opportunities that are available and leave this sport better than it was.”