Mike Poplvich, Godfather of Oregon Swimming
Mike Popovich was born in Chicago on April 18, 1927, and died at the age of 88 on June 1, 2015.
Growing up in Chicago, Mike dropped out of high school his sophomore year. “My dad was killed in an automobile accident on Christmas day in 1941 when I was 14 years old and my mother could speak little English,” he said. “I was the oldest of three children and I decided I needed to care for the family.”
Mike served in the Navy during World War II from 1944 to 1946. After his military service, his brother Joe, convinced him that they could use their swimming talents to earn a college scholarship. The brothers went to the coach at UCLA and when he saw them swim, he wanted them on his team. Since Mike had dropped out of high school and was not eligible to attend UCLA, the coach encouraged them to attend Santa Monica Community College to get their necessary credits to be able to attend UCLA.
Mike comments, “Santa Monica didn’t have a swim program so we started one. My brother went on to swim at UCLA. He encouraged me to take a scholarship to the University of Oregon, where I played football and swam.”
Mike earned both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Oregon, graduating in the mid to late 1950s. There, at the University of Oregon, Mike met Dr. Don Van Rosen, who later became the University of Oregon’s Swimming Coach. Together they promoted aquatics, including competitive swimming.
His first Aquatic Director/Teacher/Swim Coach position was in North Bend, Oregon, in the late 1950s.
He became the Aquatic Director for the Gresham Centennial School District in the early 1960s where he helped with the design of Gresham, Centennial, and later Barlow High School Swimming Pools.
During the 1960s he organized a swimming league called the Columbia Basin Swim League, (CBSL). This winter league included all year round swimming clubs in Oregon and Southwest Washington, with the exception of the Multnomah Athletic Club. The goal of the CBSL was to promote the team concept of competitive swimming by establishing conferences based on team size, with a conference championship at the end of the winter season. As he was the Commissioner of this league, this may have been when Mike got the name, “The Godfather of Oregon Swimming”.
At this time, Mike also established The Portland Area Aquatic Council. This was a professional outlet for the area’s Aquatic Directors in the public and private sector. This group met monthly with the goal of promoting and marketing all areas of Aquatics.
In the late 1960s Mike took the position of Aquatic Director of the Mountain Park Aquatic Center. He played a role in the design and construction of Oregon’s first fifty meter indoor pool built since the opening of the Multnomah Club’s facility. This venue hosted the Summer Long Course Regionals for many years. He was also instrumental, along with Dr. Don Van Rosen, in the MPAC being awarded the Pac-10 Men’s Conference Swimming Championships. The first time it was held in the Pacific Northwest in several decades.
Mike moved on to become the Aquatic Director of the Mount Hood Community College Aquatic Center, while still in the blue print plan, in the mid-1970s. He played a major role in the design of the facility; a facility that included a detailed outdoor water park, that was later deleted due to lack of funds. The MHAC hosted numerous Regional/Sectional Championships. He also hosted numerous Masters Meets, both locally and on a national level. He was also a worthy Masters competitor in his age group. Many swim clubs utilized the outdoor pool for long course training. It also became the main venue for the Oregon High School State Swimming Championships for all classifications in the state.
To many in the swimming community, Mike has earned the nickname of “Godfather of swimming”. What did he do to get that title?
“He has made many great contributions to aquatics,” says Bud Taylor. “He was able to do a lot of things other people couldn’t do. He is known for his credibility and dedication to the sport. Popovich was an extraordinary organizer for aquatic facilities and events. Very few people have his ability to promote aquatics programs and train people to run them. He has been a consultant for many swim facilities in Oregon and the Northwest.”
Mike comments, “When I came to Gresham in 1962, 55 to 60 percent of the kids were non-swimmers. I’ve coached, I’ve been a lifeguard and I’ve taught water safety. I helped to build pools so children could learn to swim and learn respect for the water. I think the discipline taught in swimming carries on to other sports and to life.” That pretty well sums it up.
Mike Popovich was voted Oregon Swimmings James J. Richardson’s Award in 1979. An award given annually to an individual contributing to the success of Oregon Swimming.
Mike hired me for my first Life Guard/Teaching Job Gresham High, 1966. ( My WSI from Shattuck Hall Pool .. long gone.) To test my rescue, Mike
laid on the bottom of the pool on his tummy, at the deep end. He always was calm, handled problems with such ease and calm. Never heard him raise his voice. I had had so much respect for Mike, he was great role model and teacher.