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Like a time machine.

“It was a simple decision, but not an easy one for me,” says Alexander Popov about the moment he threw in the towel and chose to end his first career. The record-breaking, Olympic gold-winning swimmer from Russia is sitting in a quiet corner of the upscale Café Pushkin in Moscow, letting a freshly baked croissant cool off on the plate in front of him.

It’s not quite noon, and the sun is shining through the large windows of the baroque establishment. Café Pushkin is like a time machine that takes visitors to a Russia that was ruled by tsars, making it for two reasons the perfect place to interview Popov: First, his elegant swimming style has earned him the nickname “the Tsar”. And second, because time seems to pass more slowly here; the place exudes a calmness that invites self-reflection. And the 47-year-old certainly has a lot to reflect on. Popov was faced with a formidable challenge: How do I lead a new, fulfilling life when I’ve already achieved almost everything I’ve wanted to?

Baroque time machine: Alexander Popov at Café Pushkin.

Baroque time machine: Alexander Popov at Café Pushkin.

Zarya: a small, modern café in central Moscow.

Zarya: a small, modern café in central Moscow.

Beach days.

Alexander Vladimirovich Popov grew up in Yekaterinburg, an industrial town to the east of the Ural Mountains. As a child, Popov was afraid of water, a fear he overcame early on. Conquering this fear equipped him with a sense of ambition that would catapult him to the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and, as a 20-year-old, win him his first of four gold medals. Popov would go on to win six world championships and 21 European championships, making him one of the most successful swimmers Russia has ever produced. But all of that took a turn in 2004, after the Olympics in Athens. Returning to his quarters after more than 10 successful years at the top of his sport, he knew he’d had enough. And not only because he would be going home without any medals: “It was like I’d finished a book,” he explains sincerely. “You turn the last page, close it, return it to the bookshelf, and never read it again because you know it from inside and out.”

“That really motivated me.”

Immediately after the Olympics, a friend of his invited Popov to visit him in the Fiji islands. He and his wife count among the few guests to this exclusive South Pacific paradise. “I woke up early in the morning because I was used to my training regimen. I sat there quietly  on my beach chair, looked out to the ocean, and thought: ‘This is the life.’” Popov is grinning the entire time he is telling this story, as if he’s spontaneously reliving the moment that strengthened his decision to change his life. “I was in the right place at the right time, and I knew that life would go on after the sport. That really motivated me.”

Popov recalls his time as an Olympic swimmer while visiting the Chaika swimming pool, in the centre of Moscow.

Popov recalls his time as an Olympic swimmer while visiting the Chaika swimming pool, in the centre of Moscow.

Chaika swimming pool.

Chaika swimming pool.

At one with the elements.

But Popov also owes this apparently seamless transition to his new life to his overall attitude and outlook on life – in other words, his ability to take emotional moments like these and view them in the clear light of logic. This, too, required years of practice before he could master it. “In the water, you’re bound by the laws of physics. So as a swimmer, you need to be in absolute harmony with the force of the water,” Popov explains. “It’s like a process of creation, a way of thinking. I’ve decided that I will accept no limits for perfection.”

When he founded his own company.

The more medals Popov won, the less he cared about accolades generally. His true opponents were himself and the elements. Popov’s way of outdoing himself time and time again gave him a sense of confidence that had a ripple effect far beyond the borders of his athletic career. From 2005 onwards, Popov began carrying out tasks on behalf of the Russian Olympic Committee and founded the Alexander Popov Cup, which helps young athletes prepare for the Olympic Games. But he also started hitting the books, eventually earning his MBA in banking and finance. In 2009 he was appointed to the supervisory board of the German sportswear manufacturer Adidas.

He held this position until 2014, and left when he founded his own company. His work involves developing and planning sporting facilities around the world, and while his business has its headquarters in Popov’s industrial hometown of Yekaterinburg, he runs it from Moscow. Here, the most important economic and political decisions are made. And after several years of living in Australia and Switzerland, Moscow is also his new home.

Panorama: Alexander Popov in front of Moscow’s skyline.

Panorama: Alexander Popov in front of Moscow’s skyline.

New-found freedom.

Even more meaningful to Popov than his professional success is the freedom that his life after swimming has afforded him. No more training eight hours a day, seven days a week, he explains as we take his V-Class to the Chaika swimming pool, in the centre of the city, near the Kremlin. “I can plan my own schedule.”

A few years ago, Popov – along with his wife and three children (two sons and one daughter) – went on a road trip through Europe in the V-Class. The clan made stops in Bulgaria, Croatia and Italy before passing through Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Poland on their way back to Russia. The road trip was inspired by “the freedom of being able to go wherever you want, eat whatever you want, and sleep wherever you want,” he says emphatically.

He likes the attention.

The people here at the swimming facility recognise Popov and greet him as he walks along the edge of the pool. The pool’s director and guests shake his hand, chat with him, take pictures together. Popov takes it in stride, happy to oblige. Though he’s never been one to seek fame and hardly does press, you get the feeling that he likes the attention. He politely declines the request to swim a few laps. He says he rarely does that anymore.

Alexander Popov earned himself the nickname “the Tsar of Swimming”.

Alexander Popov earned himself the nickname “the Tsar of Swimming”.

He even dug out his swimming goggles for our photographer.

He even dug out his swimming goggles for our photographer.

His former and new life.

For a moment, Popov’s former life and his new life seem to overlap. But as Popov, elegantly dressed and close to two metres tall, slowly makes his way toward the exit, smiling for the cameras one last time, there isn’t a glimmer of nostalgia in his eyes. Instead, you sense that this is a person who has travelled a long, winding road and is now marching into the future with his head held high. 

Popov steers the V-Class into a parking spot in front of Moscow State University, talking about how much his children love the van – as does Popov himself. The versatility it offers and the freedom it promises.

The power of silence.

The ability to simply hop in and, like he and his family have done, drive to wherever your wanderlust leads you – you just don’t get that in any other car on a comparable level of comfort and design, he says. In Moscow’s city centre, sports cars are anything but a rarity. But that doesn’t really interest Popov. “There’s not much of a point driving them here,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes. “It’s not like you can unleash their full power in the middle of the city.” For Popov, there’s power in silence.

“Driving is a lot like life itself: if you’re impatient, you’ll just get stuck again at the next red light.” Swimming in harmony with the elements, living in harmony with the world – you could call this Popov’s principle. It has certainly given him a new lease of life anyway. And he’s bound to keep evolving.

Versatile: Popov drives the V-Class also in daily traffic.

Versatile: Popov drives the V-Class also in daily traffic.

Freedom for the whole family: the V-Class.

The V-Class is one of the most versatile vehicles from Mercedes-Benz. As a comfortable family van, a practical partner for outdoor enthusiasts, a dynamic company car or a luxurious shuttle with style: the charm of the V-Class models lies in their utility and independence, the appeal in their spaciousness and the interior concept. The possibilities offered by the V-Class are mani­fold. How you choose to use them is entirely up to you. Some call this versatility. We call it freedom.

Kraftstoffverbrauch kombiniert CO₂-Emissionen kombiniert Stromverbrauch im kombinierten Testzyklus

Product may vary after press date on 27.08.2019.

1 Die angegebenen Werte wurden nach dem vorgeschriebenen Messverfahren ermittelt. Es handelt sich um die „NEFZ-CO₂-Werte“ i. S. v. Art. 2 Nr. 1 Durchführungsverordnung (EU) 2017/1153. Die Kraftstoffverbrauchswerte wurden auf Basis dieser Werte errechnet. Der Stromverbrauch wurde auf der Grundlage der VO 692/2008/EG ermittelt. Weitere Informationen zum offiziellen Kraftstoffverbrauch und den offiziellen spezifischen CO₂-Emissionen neuer Personenkraftwagen können dem „Leitfaden über den Kraftstoffverbrauch, die CO₂-Emissionen und den Stromverbrauch aller neuen Personenkraftwagenmodelle“ entnommen werden, der an allen Verkaufsstellen und bei der Deutschen Automobil Treuhand GmbH unter www.dat.de unentgeltlich erhältlich ist.

4 Angaben zu Kraftstoffverbrauch, Stromverbrauch und CO₂-Emissionen sind vorläufig und wurden vom Technischen Dienst für das Zertifizierungsverfahren nach Maßgabe des WLTP-Prüfverfahrens ermittelt und in NEFZ-Werte korreliert. Eine EG-Typgenehmigung und Konformitätsbescheinigung mit amtlichen Werten liegen noch nicht vor. Abweichungen zwischen den Angaben und den amtlichen Werten sind möglich.

6 Stromverbrauch und Reichweite wurden auf der Grundlage der VO 692/2008/EG ermittelt. Stromverbrauch und Reichweite sind abhängig von der Fahrzeugkonfiguration. Weitere Informationen zum offiziellen Kraftstoffverbrauch und den offiziellen spezifischen CO₂-Emissionen neuer Personenkraftwagen können dem „Leitfaden über den Kraftstoffverbrauch, die CO₂-Emissionen und den Stromverbrauch aller neuen Personenkraftwagenmodelle“ entnommen werden, der an allen Verkaufsstellen und bei der Deutschen Automobil Treuhand GmbH unter www.dat.de unentgeltlich erhältlich ist.

7 Angaben zu Stromverbrauch und Reichweite sind vorläufig und wurden vom Technischen Dienst für das Zertifizierungsverfahren nach Maßgabe der UN/ECE-Regelung Nr. 101 ermittelt. Die EG-Typgenehmigung und eine Konformitätsbescheinigung mit amtlichen Werten liegen noch nicht vor. Abweichungen zwischen den Angaben und den amtlichen Werten sind möglich.