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There is no doubt about it. David Popovici will be one of the main stars of this European championships in Roma. The 17-year-old Romanian swimmer has taken the spotlight by storm with a world championships of the highest caliber, in which he struck double gold in the men’s 100m and 200m freestyle, something that had only be achieved by USA’s Jim Montgomery at the 1973 world championships in Belgrade. He knows that all eyes are on him, but he looks like he can handle the pressure with a confidence of a senior athlete and always with a sly smile on his lips, like someone who is only aiming straight at the goal in front of him. The young Romanian athlete returns to the Foro Italico where only a year ago he hit an incredible hat trick (50m, 100m and 200m freestyle) at the Junior European Championships.

How are you doing in Rome and what are your sensations?
"I'm fine. I'm relaxed. I had some time after the world championships to relax and get into the mood for a new competition. I am looking forward to it. It will be fun to swim outdoors in this fantastic atmosphere."

Are you planning to stay in Romania or maybe in the future to move to the United States to try a new experience?
"On a work and professional level I am staying in Romania because that is where I have my team, without which I couldn’t do anything, and that is my only priority: to be good at swimming. And the recipe is to work with my people. But, who knows, after my swimming career, maybe I want to live here or on another continent. I don't know. I'll have to think about that in the future."

How do you explain your improvements over the past two years?
"Erling Haaland, a soccer player, was asked the same question after a game in which he had a breakthrough performance, somewhat like mine. He could not speak English well at the time but he got it straight to the point, by answering only 'hard work.' So hard work, sacrifice, and it all comes down to the question ‘how badly do you want it’. And I really want it very badly.”

You used the word sacrifice a lot, but what does the term actually mean to you?
"For me, sacrifice means living a hard life, where I have to wake up in the morning, train even if I don't want to, push myself beyond human limits. It is simply what you are willing to do that others are not. That includes having a different lifestyle in terms of eating, sleeping and partying. You can't do what a normal guy does. Sometimes I would like to go to parties but then I remember that I have training at 6 or 7 in the morning, I think about who I am and what I am doing and I say no to myself."

What are your future plans in swimming?
"For this year I think I have achieved what I wanted at the world championships but why stop here? There is no one forcing us to stop. All I want from this competition and the upcoming Junior World Championships in Peru (Aug. 30-Sept. 4) is simply to have fun. The medals, the records, the good times are just a bonus. But if I can have fun, I am satisfied."

So what is fun in swimming?
"Everything is fun. Sport is fun. Getting very tired to the point of almost wanting to throw up and having lactic acid issues and blood in your head, that's fun. It's not fun at the moment but half an hour later, when the pain is no longer unbearable, it's fun. You feel like it was all worth it."

In Budapest you where cheering for Gregorio Paltrinieri. Are you a fan of him?
"I am a big fan of Gregorio, I wanted him to win. He is a great athlete, a great swimmer, most of all he is a nice person. He has always been nice. I felt I had to root for him because I think he is a great friend and a fantastic professional, from whom I can learn a lot."

How was the Junior European Championships at home?
"Fantastic. It was the meeting with the greatest spectators. As it was the home crowd, the first time I got on the block for the a final I almost felt like crying, because it was just too overwhelming to hear the noise of that crowd. I can't wait to have another big event at home. It was the first time we had a such a competition at home and it was great."

You met with Jim Montgomery, a USA’s swimming legend (3 golds and a bronze at the 1976 Olympic Games), what did he say?
"It was very nice that Jim Montgomery came to visit me in Romania. We had a good dinner and talked a lot. He has very interesting stories, having lived through a particular time for swimming and sports in America. It was good to talk to him, to learn things that I should keep secret; but I talked to him and he is a nice person and a great athlete."

Do you think it is possible to break the 200m freestyle record, 1:42.00, set right here?
"The 200m record is more difficult than the record in the 100m. The one that Biedermann did in Rome in 2009 was crazy and it was also a bit of a weird race from a technical point of view in terms of the split, which were almost all the same. It is a difficult record to beat but not impossible. Paul is a human being and he was a human when he did it. We are all human beings."

How do you handle all the attention you get? Do you enjoy it?
"It's tiring. A little more than swimming” - he smiles – “Rather than manage it, I simply ignore it. Let me explain: I don't watch any of my interviews and I don't watch myself on TV, I don't pay attention to it. In fact, if I am on TV I turn it off or I don't watch myself. In addition, I have taken a break from social media. If there were not people recognising me on the street, I would forget that I am very famous in Romania and in the swimming world."

So, how famous are you in Romania?
"Very, I have to say. It's strange because if I want to walk on a crowded street I have to get ready to take pictures. And that's fine, it's certainly not a problem. I like the fact that people appreciate me. But if I have to go somewhere I go there by bike, or with a cap, sunglasses and mask on."

Has it changed since Budapest?
"A lot. Before that I was a little bit famous in Romania, let's say three or four out of 10 people recognised me, now 10 out of 10. Everywhere, in restaurants, on the street.”

Is it true that you want to be a psychologist like your mother?
"It is a subject I like and it is an idea for what I would like to study after high school, because I could also use a lot of this knowledge in sports on a mental and motivational level."

Is it true that you read philosophy books?
"My coach initially talked to me about stoicism and philosophy in general, and there is a lot to learn from this school of thought. I think there is a great connection between stoicism and sports."

So how do you use it?
"In everyday life, when I want to motivate myself to dive into cold water or when I don't feel like doing anything. The basis of stoicism is simply living a happy life, so it helps me pursue that."

You will have competed in as many as four international events by the end of the season. How do you handle that?
"I just do what my coach tells me, and it really helps that I trust him completely with my preparation. If he told me to keep a certain race pace even three minutes before the race, I would do it even if I thought it was stupid. Although of course he would never do that," he smiles. "In Budapest, for example, I didn't expect to do so well because of how I felt but I surprised myself and it's a very good feeling.”

In addition to your races you will also add the 400m. What’s your goal?
"It would be nice to defend the titles in the 100m and 200m In the 400m I really don't know, but it's a new challenge and we wanted to try it and what better place than here to tackle it where the competition is high and the pool has so much history."

Are you curious about your opponents or do you just focus on himself?
"Especially when you are doing a new competition, it is important to know what to expect from the others. In the end that's the essence of swimming: racing against yourself and against the clock. But when you do something new, it is very important to know the strategy of others. In general, in almost every race, if I can do myself and if I do it well I will probably win."

Many compare you to the Russian icon Alexander Popov as a 100m swimmer, what does that mean?
"He was a pioneer in the swimming world, the first athlete to go under 22 seconds in the 50m, if I'm not mistaken, a fantastic swimmer in the 100m as well. And then there is the great similarity in our last names: Popov-Popovici, which helps in the comparison. It's an honour to be compared to him, but I have to say I've been compared a little bit to everyone, from Thorpe to Phelps. And pretty much all superlatives have been used to describe me. I like all these atheletes but honestly they don't represent me. I want to be myself. The first David Popovici."

How do you define your technical merit?
"Technique matters and we work on it a lot since many others are bigger, stronger and taller; and what differentiates me is just my technique, effectiveness and mental side.”

What is the difference between you, Dressel and Chalmers?
"They are both bigger than me. Dressel has a different strategy in the 100m, while Chalmers and I are a little more similar. All three of us are at the same level and close to the world record, so what differentiates and will differentiate us is the hunger for medals."

Do you recognise yourself with the nickname "The Magician"?
"I was into magic, card games and illusionism when I was a kid. But not anymore. Some people call me 'Magician' because of what I do in the pool, but I like to think of myself as just a guy who swims fast."

What do you think about before you get in the pool?
"In this regard, I recently saw a video of Mike Tyson about how he felt before he got into the ring. He had strange feelings: sometimes he was afraid, of losing, of being defeated but the closer he was to the gong, the more confident and ready to fight he was."

Did you get to see Rome a little bit? What did you think of it?
"The architecture of Rome is beautiful. The streets are beautiful, I can say it looks a little bit like Bucharest. The atmosphere and culture are very nice. I like it overall."

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