18-year-old David Popovici of Romania was named as the 2022 World Aquatics swimmer of the year on Sunday for his performances in the 2022 calendar year where he won two individual World titles in the 100m and 200m freestyle, and set the world record in the 100m freestyle.

“It was weird going on to the podium without actually having won anything,” Popovici said after his 200m freestyle heat in which he is seeded third for the semi-finals at 1:45.86. “I know people appreciate my last year - it was nice, and hard. But now I have to go back on the podium. I’m looking forward to racing (this week).”

Image Source: Istvan Derencsenyi/World Aquatics

Popovici is the first European male to win the award since it was first introduced in 2010.

Last year in Budapest, Popovici rocketed to the top of the world, answering his potential he threw down as a junior the year prior. Popovici swam a 1:43.21 in the 200m freestyle to win the World title in Budapest, drawing comparisons to Australian legend Ian Thorpe, and it launched him to global stardom if he wasn’t already there.

“It’s an honour and very flattering to be compared to Ian Thorpe,” Popovici said after the 200m freestyle 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.”

In the 100m freestyle, Popovici threw down a 47.13 in the semi-finals before winning the final at 47.58. He was the first man to win the 100m and 200m freestyle in the same World Championships since Jim Montgomery in 1973.

“I’m a bit prouder of the 200m win, still, this was great too,” Popovici said after the 100m freestyle in Budapest. “I did good things but I think it’s just the beginning of a long journey. Now I’m here to enjoy the benefits of the my hard work I did in the past. It’s a great moment for me and I’m ready for whatever the future beholds for me.

“You know, my neck is quite heavy because of the medals – so I need to strengthen that part for the next meets. Now I’m going home and enjoying the reaction of the fans.”

Image Source: Aniko Kovacs/World Aquatics

But Popovici really took off at the European Championships in August. It was in Rome, the sight of the 1960 Olympics, where Popovici broke the vaunted world record in the 100m freestyle, taking down Cesar Cielo’s 46.91 from 2009 with a 46.86.

In the 200m freestyle, he swam under 1:43, something no one has done since 2009, racing to a 1:42.97. And the scary thing was he still had junior eligibility as his times also count as world junior records.

Image Source: Popovici celebrates setting the World Record (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Finishing off his junior career at the World Juniors in Lima, Popovici won two more titles in the 100m and 200m freestyle, and also helped Romania win the 4x100m freestyle relay, and silver in the mixed freestyle relay.

This week at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Popovici will be racing the 100m and 200m freestyle where he is the defending champion and the gold medal favourite when he lines up alongside World short course champions in Korea’s Hwang Sunwoo and Australia’s Kyle Chalmers.