By Tony Phifer, Sportswriter, Fort Collins
It’s not every day that an athlete with six Paralympic medals to her credit shows up seeking help to improve perform at an even higher level. But that’s exactly what Erin Popovich was looking for when she arrived at Colorado State University in 2003 for a meeting with Rams swimming coaches John Mattos and Chris Woodard.
“I honestly didn’t think John (then CSU’s head coach) thought I would show up,”
Popovich said. “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 to 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.”
Popovich was born with a form of dwarfism call achondroplasia, which limits the growth of limbs. Her parents, though, raised their daughter as if she were able-bodied, encouraging her to compete in sports like soccer, basketball and horseback riding. When she discovered her love for swimming at age 12, however, her life changed.
She was 15 when she qualified for the first of three Paralympic Games, winning three golds and three silvers in the 2000 Sydney Games. Standing 4-feet, 4-inches tall, she simply willed herself to success despite a lack of formalized training.
Woodard, who replaced Mattos in 2011 after a long tenure as an assistant, was Popovich’s primary trainer. He worked her every bit as hard as the Division I other swimmers on the team, introducing her to weight-lifting and other forms of training outside the pool and longer swims in the water. Soon, her performances began to dramatically improve.
When she arrived in Athens for the 2004 Games, she was a completely different athlete from the one who had dominated the 2000 competition. She entered seven events and won them all — a feat unmatched in Paralympic history — setting three world records and four Paralympic records.
“My training at CSU translated into a huge improvement for me,” Popovich said.
“If I had not come to CSU, I would have been top-five, maybe top-three in some of those events (in Athens). But because of my training I was able to win them all.”
Popovich continued to train with her CSU teammates after Athens and was even given the opportunity to compete in some meets. She’ll never forget what it felt like to swim as a Ram. “I remember when I got my first CSU swim cap — God, I loved that thing,” she said. “That was my pride and joy because I was so excited that I got to represent Colorado State and that I got to swim with them on my cap. For me, that was a huge dream.”
Popovich went on to compete in the 2008 Barcelona Games, winning another six medals — four gold — and retired in 2010 with 12 gold and seven silver Paralympic medals. She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2019, shortly after being voted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. She lives in Colorado Springs and works at the U.S. Olympic Training Center as associate director of U.S. Paralympic Swimming.
If I had not come to CSU, I would have been top-five, maybe top-three in some of those events (in Athens). But because of my training I was able to win them all.