In 1997, when she was 12, Erin Popovich decided to give swimming a try.
She had been living in Butte since she was 5 and had played every available sport in elementary school, in addition to club soccer and competitive horse showing. But she was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, and by age 12 her condition was making soccer difficult.
“Every other kid on the soccer team grew by leaps and bounds and I did not,” she said.
Soccer was also difficult because the constant running was very hard on her joints. She had always enjoyed swimming just for fun, and at 12 she learned that Butte had a USA Swimming club called the Tarpons.
“I just fell in love with the sport,” she said. “I could swim forever and not have the impact of running. Having that freedom in the water really made life great.”
And swimming apparently was what she was born to do. Before retiring from the sport in 2010, she won of dozens of medals at swimming events all over the world, including four gold and two silver medals at the Paralympic Games in Beijing.
She’ll be talking about her life as an athlete, and about all her struggles and achievements, when she speaks this Saturday at the 24th annual Magic City Sports Medicine Conference, sponsored by Athletic Medicine and Performance, at the Mansfield Health Education Center.
Stacy Molt, an athletic trainer with AMP, which is a partnership between St. Vincent Healthcare, Ortho Montana and Yellowstone Surgery Center, is coordinating the conference, whose theme this year is “Exceptional Athletes.”
That’s why she invited Popovich and Koni Dole to be the keynote speakers this year. Both are accomplished athletes whose lives have been profoundly affected by sports medicine, she said.
Dole played his senior year for Huntley Project with a prosthetic leg after an injury cost him his right leg below the knee during his junior season. He will be a redshirt freshman linebacker for the Montana State Bobcats in 2015. His dramatic story is fairly well known in this area, so we have chosen to highlight Popovich’s equally interesting story.
Popovich, 29, excelled at swimming from the start. A year after joining the swim club in Butte, she competed in the International Paralymic Committee’s Swimming World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she won four gold medals and one bronze. The next year, at the Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia, she won three gold medals and three silvers and set four world records.
People with achondroplasia usually have short arms and legs and average-size torsos, and bow-legging is a common characteristic of the condition. In 2001, Popovich underwent for major surgery to straighten her legs. After a long recovery, which included learning to walk again, she continued her swimming career.
She attended Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where she was a walk-on on the swim team. She swam for the Rams for the next seven years, graduating in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in health and exercise science.
In addition to competing in Sydney and Beijing, she swam in the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004, winning seven gold medals and setting three world records and four Paralympic Games records. Her final competition was at the IPC world championships in Eindoven, Netherlands, where she picked up six more medals—a gold, four silvers and a bronze.
Popovich said her favorite event was the 200-meter individual medley, which was particularly challenging because it involves four strokes. As she put it, “it combines all your strengths and weaknesses in one event.”
After retiring from swimming, she moved to Colorado Springs to take a job with the U.S. Olympic Committee as a classification coordinator.
“There was definitely a transitional period,” she said, trying to figure out what her life would be after all those years of intense competition. “It was a pretty smooth transition,” she said, because she was still around athletes and involved in sports.
She worked in several positions for the USOC until landing her current position as a manager for the committee’s para-cycling national team. She handles logistics, travel and planning for the team, doing all the background work needed to prepare the team for national and international events.
She said the message she will bring to the conference in Billings this Saturday is that “anybody can participate in a sport. There’s something out there for everyone.”
“It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of drive and there are a lot of challenges,” she continued, “but the best push through and strive to excel.”
Details: The conference begins Saturday morning at 7 and concludes at 5 p.m. The cost is $90 and includes the luncheon at which Popovich and Dole will speak. To attend the luncheon only, which will be from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the cost is $30.
To register for the conference, visit ampmontana.com. For information, contact Stacy Molt at 406-281-0714 or smolt@AMPmontana.com.