Romania’s David Popovici sent ripples throughout the swimming universe when he broke the vaunted 100 freestyle world record at the European Championships in Rome, an unworldly 46.86 to lower Cesar Cielo’s 46.91 that had stood as the global standard for the event for 13 years. Looking back at the last 10 swimmers to set world records before their birthday shows Popovici is in esteemed company.
Cesar Cielo’s record was set during the 2009 edition of the FINA World Championships in Rome, Italy at the height of the super suit era, in the same pool that it would end up falling. The 46.91 had withstood the test of time, and had remained uncracked despite several attempts - American Caeleb Dressel getting closer than anyone had with a 46.96 at the FINA Worlds 2019 in Gwangju (KOR), as well as his 47.02 at last summer's Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Australia’s Kyle Chalmers followed Dressel in both those races at 47.08, and had also been knocking on the door of joining the sub-47 club.
But it wasn’t Chalmers or Dressel to take down Cielo’s record. Enter 17-year-old David Popovici of Romania - the last I in his surname silent. Popovici is no stranger to the world of swimming - he emerged as a breakout star last summer when he went 47.30 right before the Tokyo Olympics in this same Rome pool at the European Juniors. In Tokyo, he was in the 100 final alongside the likes of Dressel and Chalmers, but his inexperience showed and he finished seventh at 47.88, some four tenths off the podium.
Elite Company that Popovici Now Keeps
This past year, Popovici became the world champion in the absence of both Chalmers and Dressel, who were both in Budapest but chose not to race the 100 free for different reasons. 47.30 was the Romanian teenager's gold medal-winning time after posting a 47.13 in the semi-finals.
Now Popovici follows up his junior hype with his first world record in the blue ribbon event, and he is following a trend of young world record setters in recent years. Italy’s Benedetta Pilato set the 50 breast record last year at 16, while the USA’s Regan Smith lowered the 100 and 200 back records at the 2019 Worlds at age 17. Before them, USA’s Katie Ledecky and Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte each set two world marks at age 16 in 2013.
But the last time a 17-year-old male broke a world mark? USA’s Michael Phelps in the 200 IM on the day before his 18th birthday in 2003 - the second of eight world records he set that calendar year. Before Phelps - Australia’s Ian Thorpe set the 400 free mark en route to Olympic gold in the 400 freestyle just a month before his 18th in 2000.
The Next Great One?
Popovici, who turns 18 on September 15, has already drawn comparisons to Thorpe after he won the 200 free gold medal at this year’s FINA World Championships. Thorpe was just 15 when he won his first World title in 1998 and 16 when he set his first world record in 1999. It was in Budapest this year when Popovici met Thorpe for the first time when the now-39-year-old Australian handed out awards for the four-lap event.
“It’s an honour and very flattering to be compared to Ian Thorpe,” Popovici told reporters in the mixed zone after his 200 freestyle swim in Budapest. “I just met him, like, two days ago and he said if I’d win gold, he’d try to make it to award the gold medal to me. So I will see him soon.”
To say Popovici is a generational talent is not an exaggeration. A few days after his world record in the 100 freestyle, the Romanian swam the fastest time anyone has swum in 13 years in the 200 freestyle - a 1:42.97 to sit third all-time after Germany’s Paul Biedermann (1:42.00) and USA’s Phelps (1:42.96), who Popovici had admitted to idolizing as a young swimmer.
It is rare for a male swimmer this young to be dominating the rest of the world. With his two gold medals from this year’s World Championships, along with his world record in the 100 free, and his 1:42 in the 200 free - Popovici is the real deal. Perhaps the 400 free is his next move as his event lineup grows - a 3:47 in the non-seeded heats at Europeans shows he has what it takes to be competitive. Although he chose not to swim in the final where Germany’s Lukas Martens won gold at 3:42, he could be seen in the 400 free in future international meets.
The next test for him would be the FINA World Championships next summer in Fukuoka (JPN), where a duel with the likes of Caeleb Dressel and Duncan Scott in the 100 and 200 free respectively - two established forces that did not meet him head to head in Budapest, would be his next challenge. And then a date with destiny at the 2024 Olympics where all the expectations would come to a crescendo - world records and World titles are nice, but how about Olympic gold?
Popovici has already been in two Olympic finals - fourth place in the 200 and seventh in the 100 at last year’s Games in Tokyo. Not a bad debut for a young 16-year-old. And with only three years between the Olympics, Popovici will only be 19 when he lines up behind the blocks in the French capital.
But all of that is still in the not-so-distant future, and focusing on the now, it is clear Popovici is a special talent. Many in swimming circles have noted he has plenty of room to improve - most notably in his size and strength. In Budapest, he told reporters his weight was “around 80 kilos” (176 pounds), while the likes of Chalmers and Dressel’s weight have been listed at upward of 90 kilos.
Seven world records have been set this year in swimming, but the men’s 100 freestyle carries a different weight to it, and to see a 17-year-old carry the title as the “world’s fastest man over two lengths of the pool,” it has garnered a lot of chatter around the swimming community, considering many male swimmers see their peak performance in their mid-20s.
Before Popovici heads to a senior career, he has one final meet as a junior, where he will lead Team Romania into the FINA World Junior Swimming Championships in Lima, Peru. It will be the cap to a busy summer - FINA World Championships in Budapest, followed before by European Juniors in his home country, and European Seniors in Rome.
The question is: how much faster can David Popovici get? Is this as fast as he is going to get, or is this just the tip of the iceberg of a career for a generational talent?