Popoviches Passing Kindness To Generations Of Athletes
by Ryan Wilson
Erin Popovich on the podium at the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008. (Photo: Getty Images)
“Curtis, there’s something about this meet that’s going to be extraordinary for the United States. But I want you to know that we couldn’t have done it without you. We needed you here for these young athletes.”
This was a handwritten letter Barb Popovich wrote to the late Curtis Lovejoy before the 2010IPC Swimming World Championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands. Popovich, the mother of Hall of Fame Para swimmer Erin Popovich, would regularly write letters to her daughter’s teammates.
“It was just a way to encourage and let the athletes know that they were supported,” Barb said from her Washington home. “Having something tangible sometimes means a little more in this day and age when we don’t necessarily have written notes. I know I appreciate them, and so I thought these athletes might too.”
Throughout Erin’s career, Barb liked to build relationships with Para swimmers, and handwrite letters to them. While she wrote letters to many athletes, Lovejoy was particularly touched by her words, as it spoke to the secret he had been hiding from his team.
Only a few short weeks prior to the world championships, Lovejoy had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had only four possible routes to recover: radiation, chemotherapy, growth hormone or surgery. While the diagnosis was unexpected, Lovejoy immediately knew he wanted the latter option, albeit with some initial resistance from his wife, but he did not want to miss the world championships.
Around 14 days before he was set to fly to the Netherlands, he had a successful surgery. Still weak, bleeding and unable to control his urine, he was determined to fly to the Netherlands.
“‘Curtis, don’t go to the Netherlands. Your body won’t be ready,’” Lovejoy recalled his doctor saying. “‘Your body won’t have the energy or none of that stuff. Stay at home.’”
Lovejoy replied: “Doctor, let me tell you something, if God tells me to stay at home, I will stay at home. But if he doesn’t tell me to stay, I’m getting on that plane.”
Lovejoy demanded doctors remove the catheter in his body, and, then, he prayed.
“‘Lord, if you want me on that plane, you need to restore my urine,’” he said in his prayer. “Two days before getting on that plane, God restored my urine.”
Lovejoy flew to the Netherlands and swam 18 times — “18 times as a quadriplegic!” he repeated for emphasis — in six days. He felt sluggish and lacking energy, but he did not tell anyone about his health.
After all the athletes met one last time, he headed back to his hotel at around 10:30 p.m., and read the letter from Barb.
“I just burst out into tears, just crying,” Lovejoy said. “She knew when she was writing on this, that she had a little insight on something that was going on with Curtis, and she knew that Curtis and God had to be there.”
While Barb stopped writing letters to athletes when Erin retired, Erin has found herself in a similar position during the COVID-19 pandemic: Checking in on Para swimmers and meeting their needs.
Popovich is currently the associate director of sports operations for U.S. Paralympics Swimming. The needs of athletes, she said, vary from state to state and athlete to athlete, and range from difficulties finding an open swimming pool to, as was the case with MeiMei White, needing help with their mental health.
White, an up-and-coming Para swimmer, spoke with Popovich in search of a therapist after being hospitalized for depression and thoughts of suicide and self-harm. She said Popovich was able to help her find the right therapist.
“I feel like trying to find a therapist who is good and understands you is like trying to find a best friend,” White toldUSParaSwimming.org. “Having a best friend is hard to find. I feel like a best friend to me (is a person) who would be there for me, I would be there for them.”
Popovich said it has been challenging to balance schedules during the pandemic, with the USOPC working remotely and athletes scattered across the country. But she has learned to remain flexible with her job.
Popovich said she was impressed by the times Para swimmers put up at the first TYR Pro Swim Series of the year from Jan. 14 to 18. It featured a mix of able-bodied and Para swimmers in San Antonio, Texas, and Richmond, Virginia.
“I think one of the biggest things for the athletes to learn throughout this time is the ability to do less with more,” referencing swimmers not having as much pool time as before the pandemic. Swimmers, she added, are “pulling some really darn amazing times, which is really exciting to see.”
In reflecting on her career, Popovich said she wants Paralympians to be seen in the same light as their Olympic counterparts.
“I’m a firm believer in always paying it forward and giving it back,” she said. “I had a great career as a swimmer in the Paralympic world, and so I want others to experience that and get the same joys and benefits that I did.”
Just like Lovejoy remained touched by Barb Popovich’s kindness for the rest of his life, Barb remains proud of her daughter’s continued work.
“She’s managing a great deal and giving the opportunities to others to do what she did.”