Inspiring stories of athletes who surrounded themselves with passion and the will to achieve their dreams.
By Brett Ford
Chris Popovici ’06 has dedicated his life and livelihood to mentoring and developing young people, using track and field as a catalyst for personal growth. A middle-distance standout during his four years in the Geneseo program, Popovici won the 500 meters at the 2004 SUNYAC Indoor Track and Field Championships and finished third on two occasions at the SUNYAC Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
“I became a coach because I loved the challenge and creativity that came with the profession,” says Popovici. “But as time goes by, what keeps me motivated is the joy of watching these student-athletes grow in pursuit of their goals and develop meaningful relationships that last well beyond their college careers.”
This fall began Popovici’s seventh year as head men’s and women’s track and field coach and assistant men’s and women’s cross country coach at his alma mater. He has led a new generation of student-athletes to 62 All-America certificates, including four individual NCAA championships, and has been honored as the SUNYAC Coach of the Year 11 times, and Atlantic Region Coach of the Year six times.
“My career is often boiled down to mentorship,” says Popovici, “helping young people bridge the divide between their adolescent and adult selves. These coaching interactions take place in the confines of a very individualized and objective sport, with the caveat that none of the athletes are on scholarship. They have chosen to pursue the sport for its own merit. I find myself surrounded by passion at every practice.”
Motivation is always key, he says, as a competitor, teammate and coach.
“What you want to achieve isn’t as important as what you’re willing to do to achieve it,” says Popovici. He thinks of Lopez Lomong, a former Lost Boy of Sudan who survived genocide and became an Olympic runner. Lomong’s autobiography says, “The thing about dreams, though, is they usually sound crazy to everyone but you. All it takes is one other person to buy into them to keep you going.”
Popovici says the quote sums up his job: “to buy into others’ goals and foster a support system that allows them to pursue those goals.”
INSPIRING WORKS FROM THE ATHLETIC WORLD : Coach Chris Popovici ’06 recommends several books and a film that have guided his career — and helped motivate him.
- Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell takes readers on an intellectual journey into the world of “outliers” — the best, the most successful — in athletics, business and beyond.
Most professional athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs and artists are viewed as uniquely gifted from birth. “Outliers” looks at the environments from which the world’s best have come to explain why they are different, rather than why they are alike.
- “If,” a poem by Rudyard Kipling. The Nobel laureate wrote this circa 1895 and it’s still relevant. It has always resonated with me as a distance runner: “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run / Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it…” It captures the concept that anything you set your mind to accomplish should be charged upon with relentless passion and belief that you can achieve it, despite the fear of discomfort or failure.
- Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan
to the Olympic Games, by Lopez Lomong. Lomong tells his story of being a Lost Boy of Sudan before being fostered in Tully, N.Y. As a teenager, I vividly recall in 2007 watching him win the New York State Track and Field Championship in the mile from the “slow heat,” beating his nearest opponent by nearly 15 seconds. After becoming a naturalized citizen, he went on to win numerous NCAA and USA championships, and he carried the flag for the United States in the Beijing Olympics.
- “Without Limits” directed by Robert Towne. This film is an inspirational sports story based on the relationship of running legend Steve Prefontaine and his revered coach Bill Bowerman, who went on to co-found Nike, Inc. Prefontaine has been dubbed “the James Dean of distance running” and embodied the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” that is so powerful (see left).