As her junior high peers hit growth spurts, Erin Popovich realized that her dream of becoming a professional basketball player was not very realistic.
“The other kids were all hitting their growth spurts growing inches and feet,” said Popovich, who was born with a genetic disorder, achondroplasia, which is the leading cause of drawfism. She had several surgeries and wore braces to support her back and legs. “My big growth spurt was an inch. I decided some of those contact sports weren’t for me.”
Instead, Popovich talked her way into joining the only swim team in her hometown, the Butte Tarpon Swim Team – even though she was far from comfortable in the pool.
“My first memories of being in the pool were often of terror and fear,” Popovich said. “I doggy-paddled and was afraid of the deep end. I was deathly afraid of water as a kid. I would cling onto the wall, and they’d be prying me off. It was bad. But it sparked my interest, and I always wanted to learn how to swim.”
Within a year, Popovich was swimming internationally. At age 15, she participated in the Sydney 200 Paralympic Games, winning three gold medals and three silver medals.
Popovich, who never wanted special accommodations because of her size, enrolled at Colorado State University, where she trained with the university’s swimming team.
Four years later, at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, Popovich entered seven events and brought home seven gold medals.
“Athens I don’t think I can say enough about it,” Erin said. “Never in a million years did I imagine that would happen.”
Popovich followed that up with four gold medals and two silver at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. She then retired from competitive swimming.
“I take a lot of pride that I was able to help move the sport forward and make it more visible,” Popovich said. “I want to see Paralympic swimming in the United States and around the world continue to grow. I always wanted to represent myself, team and country on the highest level and show that you can accomplish anything as long as you have the right focus and determination.”