Alexander Popke was born in Ulan-Ude, Russia.
He was adopted when he was less than a year old and has lived in Whitewater ever since.
His adoptive parents, Robert and Susan, honored his Russian lineage by nicknaming him Sashi—which is Alexander in Russian and means helper and defender of mankind.
The Whitewater High senior has done his best to live up to the nickname.
Along with being one of the top track athletes in southern Wisconsin, Whitewater coach Mark Maas said Popke is also one of the most caring and unselfish student-athletes he has ever coached.
“Sashi is a kid that knows his place in the world and what he can do to make it a better place for all of us,” Maas said. “He’s always smiling, always helping out in some way or another, but when it comes time to compete his work ethic and talent separate him from most.
“You always know what you’re going to get with Sashi. He’s not going to get flustered, and as competitive as he is, he always puts his family and teammates first.”
Popke burst onto the track scene thanks to a remarkable junior season. He qualified for the WIAA Division 2 state meet in pole vault, long jump and as a member of the 4x100-meter and 4x200 relay teams.
The 4x200 team, which also included Tyler Sheffield, Will Leibbrand and Jack Mayer, found the podium thanks to a fifth-place finish. Popke finished seventh in long jump, missing a sixth-place finish and a spot on the podium by half an inch. He was also seventh in pole vault.
Popke’s rise to fame is remarkable. He didn’t start competing in track until seventh grade, and even more astonishingly didn’t pick up a pole and give pole vault a try until midway through his sophomore season.
He credits coaching and a strong work ethic for the transformation.
“It’s kind of unreal how I’ve gone from just kind of your average track athlete to one of the big dogs that feels like he can compete with the top athletes in the state,” Popke said. “In pole vault, getting a new coach in Tom Werth really helped in that he really pushed me and made me realize that in order to become a successful athlete, you have to put in the work.
“And my teammates have helped, too. They work just as hard, because we all want the same thing, and that’s for our team and this program to be successful.”
With Leibbrand and Mayer back on the relay teams, Popke is confident that the Whippets can make a return trip to state in both the 4x100 and 4x200.
Popke also knows where he needs to get in the long jump and pole vault to secure a spot on the podium this year. He has cleared 14-feet, 6 inches in the pole vault in practice and is hoping to clear 15 feet before he graduates in June. Max Rauch of Peshtigo won last year’s state meet by clearing 14-9.
“It usually takes two to three years to establish yourself in pole vault, because it’s such a technical event,” Werth said. “But because Sashi works 10-fold at it, has all the tools and believes in himself, he has established himself as one of the state’s best much quicker.
“We put together goal cards before the season starts, and for Sashi this year, it was to clear 15-3. That would break the (Division 2) state record of 15-1, and I have no doubt in my mind that he’s that he’s capable of doing it.”
In long jump, Popke believes 22-0 is the magical mark to hit. That would have won last year’s Division 2 state meet, and Popke, who has a personal-best of 21-1 in the event, thinks that mark is doable once the weather finally cooperates and spring arrives.
Should Popke find himself back at the state meet in La Crosse in June, he won’t have far to go for college. Popke will attend UW-La Crosse and plans to continue competing in track and field.
Maas has no doubt that Popke will succeed at the next level.
“Sashi is what I call a servant leader,” Maas said. “He continues to build toward excellence as both a role model, a competitor and a teammate.”
Sashi Popke gets it. That pursuit of excellence has made him great.