If you were ever looking for a window into the mind of 18-year-old world record holder David Popovici, a recent El Pais feature went in depth on his mentality heading into the 2023 World Championships next week in Fukuoka, Japan.
The Romanian freestyle sensation also known by his Instagram handle, “Chlorine Daddy,” has always come across as wise beyond his years in interviews. However, this one in particular produced a number of memorable quotes from the reigning double world champion in the 100 free and 200 free.
Popovici recalled how his sponsor asked him to choose an animal to represent him in his line of swimwear and caps. The recent high school graduate “wanted something alpha, the top predator in the food chain,” going back and forth between a shark, eagle, killer whale, and crocodile.
“Then, my girlfriend came up with an idea – I hate to admit it, but it was her,” Popovici said. “She suggested a dragonfly. Yeah, an insect. Dragonflies are beautiful and delicate creatures that glide effortlessly on the water’s surface, not swimming nor fully airborne. My girlfriend said I look like a dragonfly when I swim. They’re swift predators, intelligent creatures and they don’t rely on brute strength. I kind of like the idea of being a dragonfly, of gliding effortlessly. The best part about swimming is that it makes me feel light and helps me forget all the negativity in life – the past, the future and the stress that catches up with us all sooner or later.”
On Greek Philosophy and Stoicism:
A fan of Greek philosophy and Stoicism thanks to his coach, Adrian Radulescu, Popovici offered a peek at what he’s been reading recently: Oblomov; The Count of Monte Cristo; The Mamba Mentality by Kobe Bryant; Michael Jordan by Roland Lazenby; The Letters of Epicurus; Letters from a Stoic by Seneca; Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; and a volume of Dialogues of Plato. He also shared how he applies that line of thinking to his swimming career.
“Epicurus, Seneca and especially Marcus Aurelius have helped me find happiness,” Popovici said. “It’s not the conventional happiness people talk about – laughing, tears of joy and big grins. It’s the happiness that comes from fulfillment. My definition of happiness is finding a balance, and the only thing that matters is what’s in my mind and heart. It’s when I feel good in training and races, regardless of the results.”
“Each race is unique and an opportunity to show what you have been working on,” he continued. “It’s not a display of power. In the grand scheme of things, the world won’t change one bit even if I win 300 Olympic medals. What will really make a difference is how and what I choose to share through my work, how I make people feel, and the messages I can send. That would leave a mark — using my image and my voice for a greater cause.
“Swimming is just my job and winning or losing is part of it,” he added. “I want to be more than that. It may sound pretentious, but this new life has come to me very abruptly. People actually recognize me on the street. And it makes me stop and think, you know? What really matters to me? Is it just swimming? Well, swimming is great but what’s even more important is using swimming to do good. Like teaching people how to find happiness through sports. Just do something! Get out there and move because we’re all stuck in these bodies for the rest of our lives!”
On His Unconventional Style:
Popovici credited his unconventional style in the pool to his mom, who celebrated his differences instead of encouraging him to fit in with his peers.
“I always wanted to stand out,” he said. “My mom always warned me about trying to blend in with the crowd and that affected my style. My coach saw it right away. My style is not conventionally correct, especially for the events I usually swim – the 100m and 200m freestyle. But he didn’t try to change it. I still swim exactly the same way I did when I was a kid.”
On His Decision to Attend College in Romania:
“If there were better options, I might consider going to another country,” Popovici said. “But I want to keep the chemistry I have with my coach. I like the people around me and the atmosphere. I like this city, Bucharest. It’s strange and I enjoy riding my bike around it, but it’s so big that I keep getting lost. You come across beautiful gigantic buildings, old, ruined palaces, classical and Latin buildings, and some from the communist era from which we haven’t fully recovered. There’s a whole lot of opulence and then you see all these homeless people with nowhere to spend the night. All those wealthy people trying to flaunt their fortunes as if it means something… You see more supercars in Bucharest than in Milan! There are lots of things that need fixing here. Eventually, I’d love to be a voice that reaches out to people who need help. I truly believe I can use my image to make a positive impact in my country.”
On Being Seen as an Artist:
“I would like to be seen as an artist, but that depends on the meaning people attach to my swimming,” Popovici said. “Art can be anything that really touches someone.”
“There’s an art to simplicity,” he added. “It’s actually very tough. To make something seem simple, you have to master the complicated stuff. I am more impressed by chefs who can take basic dishes and make them absolutely delicious, than by those complex dishes with exotic ingredients that taste strange. Being great at simplicity takes serious skill, because the truth is, nothing is ever simple.”
The Origin Story
Popovici joined the best club in Bucharest (Aquateam) when he was 10 years old, but he was soon demoted down a level for asking too many questions and skipping exercises. That’s when he was assigned to Radulescu, then just 25 years old with a recent degree in physical education.
“I saw an interview with Orson Welles where he was asked, ‘What made you think you could shoot Citizen Kane in such an unorthodox style?’” Radulescu recalled. “And he said, ‘Pure ignorance – it was the first film I made and I didn’t know any better. Also I had a cinematographer who never said no.’ David is my cinematographer.”