Erin Popovich was never the biggest swimmer in the pool. When you stand 4 feet, 4 inches tall, that’s just not going to happen.
However, on Friday, Nov. 1, Popovich will stand shoulder to shoulder with Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Babe Didrikson, Mary Lou Retton, Mark Spitz – the giants in American sports history – when she is inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.
“I’m honestly still in shock,” Popovich said of her selection to the prestigious hall of fame, located at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. “This is such an incredible honor. When you think of the amazing careers of the athletes in the hall of fame, well, to be standing with them is both humbling and awe-inspiring.”
And people are taking notice of the enormity of Popovich’s achievements. A few weeks after the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame voted her in, the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame followed suit. That induction ceremony is in April.
Popovich, quite simply, is the most accomplished Paralympic swimmer in history, winning 14 gold medals (19 total) over the course of three Olympiads. Born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism that restricted the growth of her arms and legs, she began swimming at age 12 and within three years was competing in the 2000 Paralympic Game in Sydney, Australia, where she won three golds and three silvers while setting four world records.
Her career really took off, however, when she came to CSU to study health and exercise science in the College of Health and Human Sciences. She met with John Mattos, the legendary CSU women’s swimming coach, and assistant Chris Woodard (the current Rams coach) and asked if she could train side-by-side with CSU’s team.
Woodard still remembers the conversation.
“She did not expect or want to be treated different from our other athletes,” Woodard recalled. “She wanted John and I to coach and critique her just like the other swimmers. She wanted to do everything we did – the same intervals, the same lengths, the same intensity. Erin was pretty determined to do everything our regular swimmers were doing.”
Finding herself at CSU
Popovich remembers being very apprehensive about that initial meeting. She and her mother had reached out to Mattos to set up the meeting, but she was still nervous on the first day of practice.
“I honestly don’t think John thought I would show up,” she said with a laugh. “They had no obligation to coach me – I wasn’t officially on the team, and I wasn’t going to help them win a conference title or go the NCAAs – but their openness and willingness to take on a challenge was phenomenal. I still can’t believe how fortunate I was to have two of the best coaches around work with me.”
Woodard was primarily responsible for setting up Popovich’s workouts. He introduced her to weight lifting and other forms of training outside the pool – and Popovich’s talent and determination began to blossom.
She arrived at the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, ready to dominate – and dominate she did, winning an incredible seven gold medals in seven events. No athlete in history has come close to matching that feat.
She won the first of her two ESPY Awards for Best Athlete with a Disability, and the Women’s Sports Foundation named her Sportswoman of the Year.
“My training at CSU translated into a huge improvement for me,” Popovich said. “My freshman year was an eye-opening experience in terms of the type of training I was doing, and I got huge benefits, not only in times but in overall strength.
“If I had not come to CSU I would have been top five, maybe top three in some of those events. But because of my training I was able to win them all.”
Part of the team
As for her CSU teammates, Popovich said she was accepted from the beginning. Her 2000 accomplishments – after all, she was a three-time gold medalist when she walked in the door – gave her instant credibility despite her size. And she not only showed up for practice every day, she attended every home meet, cheering on her teammates from the pool deck.
“Erin didn’t want anyone to walk around on eggshells around her – she wanted to joke around and be encouraged, just like everyone else,” Woodard said. “In the spring leading up to the 2004 (U.S. Paralympic Trials) we saw each other constantly. I’m sure there were times when she was sick and tired of me, but she was 100 percent with me throughout the process.
“I’m very grateful to Erin for allowing me to work with her. I got to see a whole host of Paralympic athletes, and I’m just in awe of what they accomplish. Athletes with restrictions don’t think twice about their limitations. They’re just regular people trying to be really good.”
One last medals haul
Popovich wasn’t finished. At the Beijing Games in 2008, one year after graduating from CSU, she won four more gold medals and two silvers. She retired from competitive swimming in 2010.
The Butte, Montana, native has worked the past 10 years with the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs in various capacities. She returned to her first love earlier this year and is now Associate Director of Sport Operations for U.S. Paralympic Swimming. She travels the country and world, setting up Paralympic meets and encouraging young swimmers like her to take the plunge.
It is somehow fitting that on Nov. 1 she will become just the second CSU athlete to enter the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame, joining six-time Olympic gold medalist Amy Van Dyken. They trained in the same facility at Moby Pool, and each elevated their sport to unprecedented heights.
“I know that Amy has been a vocal proponent for Erin to get into the hall of fame,” Woodard said. “To have two young women who were incredibly stubborn, motivated and optimistic from the same school and the same swimming program go into the hall of fame is pretty amazing.
“Honestly, Erin belongs there – she can hold her own with any of those other greats. It’s gratifying for all of the people who were around her at CSU. We think the world of her.”