The story of U.S. Hall of Fame Swimmer Erin Popovich who started a movement and gained traction for the Paralympics
By Cassidy Thornburg
“By all means, the Paralympics have grown. Has it grown to what we would like to see? No, and that’s okay. The Paralympics still have a long way to go, but it is going to grow and grow and grow.”
As the Associate Director of U.S. Paralympic Swimming, 14-time Paralympic champion, and Hall of Famer (‘19), Erin Popovich hopes the “Paralympics movement” will gain greater traction and publicity in the years to come. USA Swimming describes Popovich as the athlete who put the Paralympics “on the map”and for good reason. Her touching story, go-with-the-flow attitude, and wealth of accomplishments has inspired the lives of many.
In ten years of world competition and three Olympic games, (’00, ’04, and ’08) Popovich has earned herself a spot on the Swimmer Hall of Fame wall adjacent to the pool at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Her picture hangs next to the greatest swimmers of all time including Janet Evans, Natalie Coughlin, and Michael Phelps.
“I didn’t know that they had put the picture up until I was walking through the hallway one day and saw my face on the wall.”
She would never advertise it herself, but Popovich is the first female Paralympic Swimmer to make the wall with her induction in 2019— nine years following a decorated career that included 19 total medals from 2000, 2004, and 2008 games in Sydney, Athens, and Beijing, respectively.
Popovich has also won an additional 25 medals in four world meets. She attained her first at only age 13, a year after she experienced the onset of achondroplasia, a genetic disorder that results in dwarfism. Though she was born with the condition it didn’t noticeably affect her life until puberty and after years of playing soccer.
Growing up in a soccer family
“GOOOOOOOAL,” Erin Popovich screams as she pumps her fist in the air and high-fives her older brother, Nathan. She’s ten years old and loving every minute on the soccer field near where she grew up in Silver Bow, MT. She is, of course, surrounded by family.
“Soccer was our family’s sport. Nathan, my older sister, Kat, and I all played. My mom would referee games and my dad was our assistant coach.”
Soccer often put the Popovich’s on the field at the same time until Popovich reached the u13 division. She began to notice the ways she was different than the other athletes.
“When the teenage years hit, I began to notice a difference in growth. I saw others getting faster while I stayed the same. My parents held me back in sports, but with every new team, I lost my group of friends. I just couldn’t keep up.”
From soccer to swimming
At age 12, Popovich decided to switch to a different sport, with less contact: swimming.
“Before then, I loved to be in the water, but couldn’t swim effectively.”
She quickly learned the strokes and started competing.
“In October 1997, I began participating in beginner level swim club meets. Then, three to four months into swimming, my coach, Marie Cook came across a disability championship in Minnesota in the summer of 1998.”
As Popovich competed more and more, her family teased her for eating the same meal five days a week.
“My family would say I was addicted to spaghetti, nothing fancy— plain Jane. Just good ‘ol spaghetti.”
Though she was fueled like a champion, Popovich was still unaware of where swimming could take her.
“At the time I was unaware of the Paralympics movement and hate to admit it, but I didn’t even know they existed.”
The start of her career
That quickly changed and three years later, Popovich made her global entrance as a Paralympic swimmer when she walked through the opening ceremony at the 2000 Sydney Olympics & Paralympics at only age 15.
“It was very surreal; I couldn’t believe that I was there,” Popovich shared.
In Sydney, she won three gold medals and set four world records.
In between the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, Popovich went to college in 2003. She was grateful when the coaches at Colorado State University (CSU) gave her a shot to be on the team.
“Even though I couldn’t score points for the team, they still let me be a part of it.”
This taste of team, which she described as a “sisterhood” at CSU, prepared her for the 2004 Olympics where she went 7-for-7, winning seven gold medals in seven events. She finished the perfect meet as the anchor leg for the 4×100-meter freestyle relay.
“I was pretty nervous, I’ll be honest, and I blew all expectations out of the water, huge drops. I had a 10-sec drop, which is unheard of. It all culminated after the relay at the end of the meet. To stand on the podium with my teammates and be a part of a team brought a perfect ending to a perfect meet.”
In 2005, Popovich won her first ESPY award for excellence in sports performance. She shared that it was a lot different than her normal life and an unreal experience to be surrounded by such iconic athletes. Popovich also had the chance to meet Peyton Manning, the NFL legendary QB.
“I was stepping onto the elevator, and Peyton Manning was already inside. He shared that he was looking for his wife and couldn’t find her. I just smiled and didn’t know what else to say.”
Deciding to retire
Towards the end of her career, Popovich won another ESPY in 2009. She had competed in her last Olympic & Paralympic Games in 2008 where she won another four gold medals while breaking two more world records.
In 2010, she announced her retirement after the 2010 International Paralympic World Swimming Championships.
“After that meet in December 2009, I knew it was time to move on. My heart just wasn’t in it anymore, and I felt like it was time to get my life outside of the pool in order. I had a great final meet with a few more podium finishes. It was great to leave knowing that the U.S. would continue to be a dominant force. For me, it was the right choice at the right time and I have not regretted it since,” Popovich told USA Swimming following her announcement.
Facing challenges with an adaptable attitude
In her transition from an athlete to her new role as the associative director of U.S. Paralympics Swimming, Popovich has been able to continue to raise awareness for the Paralympics. And, she has used her role to encourage current Paralympic athletes with her own story and competitive mindset, especially during this uncertain time.
“Challenges, changes, and uncertainties are going to happen. It’s how we choose to deal with that, that will determine our success. I don’t think any person gets through life without that,” Popovich shared.
“For me, it often goes back to short term and long term goals and answering the question: How can I be flexible in swimming and in life, but push against the status quo as needed?”
Her ability to do just that and forge her own path in the athletic world as an athlete with disabilities is an inspiration to all athletes. Though her story is unique, she is not the only athlete with disabilities to push against the status quo.
The Paralympics movement is growing. With every year the competition two weeks after the Olympics attracts more attention. As Popovich prepares virtually for Tokyo 2021, she hopes next year is the year that the public’s awareness of the Paralympics becomes more widespread than ever before.