Caeleb Dressel was the world’s fastest swimmer in a textile swimsuit. He was the world champion. He was the Olympic champion. He was, naturally, being a great sprinter, from the United States. At the age of 25, he was at his peak when last June 21 at the Budapest World Cups he decided to withdraw from the competition alleging “medical reasons” never specified, just after verifying that he would dispute the 100-meter freestyle final with a skinny man with prominent cheekbones and bright look that at only 17 years old he had done the two lengths of his semifinal in 47.60 seconds. He was named David Popovici.
If Dressel didn’t flee at the sight of a bleak future, it seemed so. Reasons were not lacking. The future of free swimming belonged to that stem of 1.90 tall, as unexpected for its strange Romanian origin as predictable in its progression. This Saturday in the pool of the Foro Italico, venue of the European Swimming Championships, Popovici confirmed the devastating trajectory that his marks have announced since he was 13 years old. Not since Ian Thorpe became the earliest world champion of all time in 1998 at the age of 15 has a more authoritative freestyle swimmer emerged. The boy, who has been training all his life in a club in Bucharest, far from the main currents of elite swimming, destroyed in 46.86 seconds the world record of César Cielo, the most entrenched in the infamous memory of the era of polyurethane floating swimsuits.
Exactly a century after Johnny Weissmüller broke his first record of 100, fate reserved a perfectly ironic circle for Popovici, who became the youngest man to break a record in swimming’s most legendary event. The location could not have had a greater symbolic load. It was the swimming pool of the Foro Italico, under the old pine trees, the same scenario in which the previous record was established, 13 years ago. It was in the final of the World Cups in Rome, on July 30, 2009, when stuffed into a rubber suit that helped him slide along the surface using all his strength to go forward, because technology was already taking care of holding him up , when César Cielo touched the last wall and shouted victoriously, to the glory of Brazil and Arena, the swimsuit manufacturer. His brand, 46.91 seconds, had just been born and already seemed engraved in stone. The man who broke it would have to swim as if he were wearing a state-of-the-art floatation device.
With waterproof swimsuits banned in 2010, swimming ushered in a new era, more sober, less spectacular. Armed with a cloth Bermuda shorts through which the water flowed freely, Caeleb Dressel and the Australians Kyle Chalmers and Cameron McEvoy tried unsuccessfully to approach the inhuman territory of Cielo. Only Dressel fell below 47 seconds, in the 2019 World Championships. His 46.96 became a milestone and a ray of hope for the pilgrims who advanced towards the frozen summit that Heaven inhabited.
the wild side
Popovici was four years old at the 2009 World Cups. He lacked memory and complexes. He did not feel inferior for going bare-chested, his crotch barely covered by a cloth shorts, showing off his chest with an insinuating sternum to the crowd. Challenged by the Hungarian Kristof Milak, the best butterfly player that exists now transformed into a book writer, he must have found an incentive. “The 100 brings out your wild side,” he said, after winning gold in Budapest a month ago. Milak, swimming to his left, pushed him into the adrenaline arena.
Milak came out first. Frenchman Maxime Grousset commanded the test during the turn, in 22.72 seconds. Popovici hit the first wall in second position, six hundredths ahead of Cielo’s split time in 2009. His comeback would be unheard of. Popovici moved forward like a knife through water. Without offering resistance. Without offering a friction surface, rotating the trunk and nailing the hands in perfect balance. With 40 meters to go he was already crossing the threshold of the world record pace. His 46.86 is one of the greatest feats in the history of the sport. An ominous sign for the United States and Australia, great powers of free swimming, on the way to the Paris Games in 2024.