Aughts: Solid Gold

Paralympic swimmer tops the podium with Hall of Fame inductions

Erin Popovich
Erin Popovich swam with the Colorado State team and won 19 medals in three Paralympics Games. While competing in the Paralympics, she had an epiphany: “I saw the athletes before I saw the disabilities. That was really empowering,” she said. Photo: R.J. Sangosti (B.A., ’01) / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Erin Popovich is 4 feet, 4 inches tall.

Yet she towers as a swimmer: Between 2000 and 2008, Popovich won 19 medals – 14 of them gold – at three Paralympic Games. She made a splash at Games in Sydney, Athens, and Beijing, setting world records and becoming the most accomplished Paralympic swimmer in history.

Those astonishing achievements recently put her in a league with other giants in American sports: In November, Popovich was inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. In April, Popovich will be inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame; she’s in a cohort with Lindsey Vonn, of Vail, the winningest women’s World Cup skier of all time.

“I’m honestly still in shock,” Popovich, who lives in Colorado Springs, said after her selection to the prestigious U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame. “When you think of the amazing careers of athletes in the Hall of Fame, well, to be standing with them is both humbling and awe-inspiring.”

Popovich was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism that restricted growth of her arms and legs.

The condition did not restrict her talent or grit: At age 12, Popovich started swimming in her hometown of Butte, Montana; within three years, in 2000, she was a star in the Paralympics pool. In 2003, Popovich came to Colorado State University to study health and exercise science – and to swim.

As a student-athlete with a disability, Popovich did not have the qualifying times to officially join the CSU team and to compete for conference titles or in NCAA Division I Swimming & Diving Championships. But that didn’t preclude training, swimming in invitational meets, and other aspects of team participation, an arrangement supported by Colorado State’s legendary swimming coach John Mattos and assistant coach Chris Woodard, who has since become the Rams’ coach.

The CSU coaches were soon impressed with Popovich’s commitment. She sought all the intensity of training – intervals in the pool, weights, dryland training, competitive focus – as well as the pride and camaraderie of swimming with the Colorado State team. “She did not expect or want to be treated differently from our other athletes,” Woodard recalled. “She wanted John and me to coach and critique her just like the other swimmers. She wanted to do everything we did.”

Popovich knew a chance to swim with the CSU team would prepare her for a particular high-stakes meet: the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, which would be her second showing at the elite competition. “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.”

How huge? In Athens, she won seven gold medals in seven events: the 100-meter breaststroke, 50-meter butterfly, 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle, 200-meter individual medley, and two relay events. No athlete in history has matched that feat.

After that sweep, Popovich rose to mainstream sports fame, winning the first of two ESPY Awards for Best Athlete with a Disability; the Women’s Sports Foundation named her 2005 Sportswoman of the Year.

The swimmer earned her bachelor’s degree in 2007 and the next year was back at the Paralympic Games, this time in Beijing. There, she won four more gold medals and two silvers.

She later transitioned into professional life, working for a decade for the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs. Popovich recently became associate director of sport operations for U.S. Paralympic Swimming, a role that takes her across the country and around the world to set up Paralympic meets and encourage young swimmers.

Last fall, she returned to CSU as a guest speaker for the swim team, impressing upon a new crop of swimmers the importance of confidence and self-advocacy. Those themes reminded Woodard of the other Colorado State swimming great inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame: Amy Van Dyken, who joined the CSU swim team in 1993 and became a six-time Olympic gold medalist.

“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,” Woodard said. “I’m very grateful to Erin for allowing me to work with her.”