When Liz Jones and Erin Popovich couldn't reach a shelf at Wal-Mart, Popovich, whose height spans just above 130 centimeters, sprang to the challenge claiming she was "really good at this," and disappeared. Moments later, she reappeared with a chair putting the object at a reachable height, proof of the obstacle-plus-goal-equals-success act that has come to epitomize Popovich's life.
"She sets a good example for the rest of us," said Jones, a senior psychology major. "Sometimes I feel like we make excuses as to why we can't do things, but we really can, and she shows you that you can overcome any obstacle that is in your way."
Popovich was born with Achondroplasia , a genetic disorder of bone growth. According to Medline Plus, it is the most common form of dwarfism and is recognizable at birth. The primary identifying characteristic is a normal-sized torso with shorter arms and legs.
The Women's Sports Foundation lauded Popovich with the Sportswoman of the Year award last week in recognition of her swimming accomplishments. Popovich, a junior health and exercise science major, claims she owes her successes to her constant ambition and dedication to meeting her goals – an aim she takes with her both in and out of the pool.
"It seems very surreal that I've accomplished all this – I'm more a humble, laid-back person," Popovich said. "Swimming as a whole has really taught me perseverance and determination, wanting to achieve goals and with every level I reach there's always something higher.
"With that it's just a continual drive, whether it's competition or school or anything."
Popovich grew up in a family of five in Butte, Mont. Ear infections kept her away from the pool until surgery in 1997, allowing her to dive head first into the sport she said she "always had a passion for."
Within the first year of training, 12-year-old Popovich competed in her first national championship meet, setting a world record in the 100-meter butterfly.
She said swimming quickly became her sport niche not only because of her rapid success, but also because its characteristics suited her lifestyle.
"It's more an individual sport, but still team affiliated," Popovich says. "I played competitive soccer and all the other kids were growing in leaps and bounds, and I think an inch is a growth spurt…Swimming allowed me to be very competitive at my own pace."
Despite technically labeled with a disability, Popovich claims it hasn't held her back and owes that line of thinking to her parents.
"(My parents) never made any accommodations for me, it was really just, if you can't reach it, find a way to get it," Popovich said. "Even today if I need something I need to find a way to get it, because there's not always going to be times when someone is there to reach something for you.
"That's what I'd say my biggest difficulty is, when something's on a high shelf – especially at the grocery store. Those are evil."
Popovich's success at the national championship meet earned her a spot on the World Disability Champion Team bringing her to New Zealand to win four gold medals and one bronze.
She began training for the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, where Popovich eventually won three gold medals, three silver medals and set three world records. To cap off the event, the U.S. delegation selected the then 15-year-old to carry the flag at the closing ceremonies, an event she said still "gives (her) goosebumbs."
In 2001, her disability forced Popovich to undergo a surgery where doctors broke the tibia bone in both her legs and forced a wedge inside the bone. While the rehabilitation period lasted an upward of 6 months, it allowed her to straighten both legs completely, thus improving the bow-legged gait typical of dwarfism.
The surgery increased Popovich's height by one inch, moving her into a different disability classification group for competition. With the change in classification came faster times and closer competition.
"At Sydney and New Zealand I was the top person and then I had to go in being the bottom feeler – it was just really different to have that," Popovich said. "I was happy with what I did, not really knowing what to expect. I looked at that and regrouped. It was definitely a marker point, different things would have to happen if I was going to compete at this level."
Different things happened for Popovich when high school graduation brought her to Colorado in 2003. She began training with the CSU swim team where she found the support group she claims her "biggest inspiration comes from."
"She brings an energy and enthusiasm and happiness that is contagious," said John Mattos, head swimming coach. "It's in her daily attitude. She always comes on deck with a smile and ready to go, and I think every time she is ready to compete – even though there is a potential for a little bit of fear – she seems to be able to channel that into performance."
At the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece, Popovich went seven for seven, winning a gold in the five individual and two relay events she raced. In addition, Popovich set four Paralympic records, three world records and new American records in all her events, including the relays.
Coinciding with her tangible triumphs, Popovich holds her unspoken accomplishments in equal high regards.
"Overcoming the stereotype of you're a disabled swimmer, you're shorter than everyone else, how can you compete at such an international elite level, and I'm proving them – look, this really is out there, there is elite competition," Popovich said. "It's awesome whenever you can prove something that always makes you feel so much better."
Popovich recently took the professional route signing with Visa and Speedo. She plans on graduating in fall 2007 and pursuing a medical career.
The taste of medal still sits in her mouth however, as her sights are set on the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
"People need a go-get-'em attitude, to let nothing really stand in your way of what you want to achieve – the sky's the limit," Popovich said. "There are opportunities out there for every person. No matter what's different about you, you'll always find something that you'll fit with.
"It's about always giving your 110 percent in the matter and realizing there will always be people out there to help you out, but you have to help them out too."