Athlete Spotlight: Ognjen Stojanovic targets Serbia's first Olympic spot
From being told at the age of five that he may never walk again, Ognjen Stojanovic now hopes to become the first ever Serbian triathlete to compete at an Olympic Games.
Part of the ITU Development programme since 2007, Stojanovic is currently at university and training in Spain, but the story of how he got there reads like an inspirational novel.
Diagnosed with the rare Legg–Calvé–Perthes syndrome as a young child, Stojanovic’s right leg was more than 3cm shorter, with the femur forming to only half the size of the left. Faced with grim prospects and under poor conditions in then Yugoslavia, his parents made the difficult decision to operate.
Even following successful operation, doctors told Stojanovic that he would only ever be able to swim or ride a bike and take an office job in later life.
“Thankfully due to the amazing spirit, dedication and optimism of my mum I beat the disease, actually destroyed it!” said Stojanovic. “Immediately after the second operation and recovery period she enrolled me in the swimming club in town and drove me every single day for seven years 30 km to Novi Sad and back because we lived in a village.”
The swimming was paired with conditioning exercises a staggering eight times per day, to keep his leg muscles strong and protect the bones. Looking back, Stojanovic feels somehow thankful and attributes his incredible dedication to overcoming the disease.
“Whenever my spirit goes down during training I tell myself, ‘Ogy when you were a kid you had eight trainings per day, you need to do get this work done properly,’” said Stojanovic. “Perthes taught me discipline and gave me my competitiveness.”
In 2006, he began to direct this unwavering determination into triathlon. Director of ITU Development, Libby Burrell first met Stojanovic at the 2007 ITU World Junior Camp in Tiszaujvaros, Hungary and explains why he was an excellent fit for the ITU Development programme.
“Ogy is passionate about the sport and devours any triathlon related information,” said Burrell. “He comes from a developing federation and as such does not have many training partners at his level. He is prepared to do the work, devote the time and if necessary to relocate to be with the people and at the place where he can get better. He is loyal to the letter and is one of the greatest advocates of ITU development.”
His win at the 2007 Eilat ETU Triathlon Junior European Cup began to open the eyes of Europe and the world to this young Serbian. 2008 proved a huge turning point in Stojanovic’s career, climbing three Junior European Cup podiums including a win in Pulpi, Spain.
But the stairway to success is long and winding and it would not be the story of Stojanovic without a few more twists and turns. Following success in 2008, his next and last year as a junior resulted in disappointment after a period of over-training. By 2010 Stojanovic was still feeling the negative effects, but with the help of Burrell and a hint of fate, a new coach set him firmly back on track.
“After probably my most disappointing race at the World U23 Championships in Budapest I went out for a morning run to try to clear my mind, and running along Danube Quay, I ran past Sergio Santos,” said Stojanovic. “I didn’t know him personally at that time but I said ‘Morning’ and moments after I thought that maybe I need to find a coach like him if I want to correct any wrongs. He is obviously a great coach proved by Joao Silva’s fourth place finish in the World Championship Grand Final on the previous day and Silva is just one year older than me.”
Three months later Stojanovic found himself in Portugal’s Rio Maior Olympic Training Centre and has now been under the guidance of Portuguese coach Santos for over a year.
“I couldn’t get a better coach as his extreme discipline and responsibility, but also coaching and training sense suits me from head to toe,” said Stojanovic. “I think he is a special coach, hard to find these days, as his main objective for me lies a few years ahead so I can be sure I will not get burned out or over-trained if I follow his instruction.”
Benefiting from warmer climates with a new group of triathletes against the solitary training in freezing temperatures of the Serbian winter, Stojanovic was lucky enough to train with the likes of Kris Gemmell and David Hauss who proved to have a great mentoring effect on him.
Ognjen Stojanovic’s ITU career
54 races, including elite, junior and Under23.
1st - 2011 Cartagena ITU Triathlon Pan American Cup and Ibero American Championships (Elite Men)
1st - 2008 Pulpi ETU Triathlon Junior European Cup
1st - 2007 Eilat ETU Triathlon Junior European Cup
1st - 2007 Gallipoli ITU Triathlon European Cup and Balkan Championships
Best ITU World Cup result - 28th at Holten 2010, 30th at Guatape 2011, Huatulco 2010
Best ITU World Triathlon Series result - 32nd, Yokohama 2009
You can follow Oggie on Twitter, @OggieStojanovic, or find him at his blog here
“I really learned a lot, especially from Kris who I think can be described as a fountain of triathlon knowledge and I’ll need a year or two to absorb all the valuable advice he unselfishly shared with me,” said Stojanovic.
But it is Stojanovic’s own deep rooted determination and work ethic that ultimately drives him forward.
“My mental approach can be described in a way that I am cheating my brain. I somehow switch off the brain, think only about what I am doing right now, focus on that particular task and tell my brain that I enjoy doing this,” said Stojanovic. “If you think too far forward you cannot ‘sell’ the lie to your brain and it will simply kill your motivation.”
In early 2011 Stojanovic was invited to attend the ITU-ETU Development camp at the University of Alicante in Spain as a role model for junior and U23 athletes. His attendance not only gave a great boost to the young triathletes, he also left a deep impression on the university.
“I decided I can come and help those kids as I know how much those camps mean for development and motivation, and then as we saw it shows it was a big opportunity for me to come again to Alicante and live here,” said Stojanovic.
By the end of the year Stojanovic had enrolled on a course and moved to Alicante. His student status gives him the freedom to train, make use of the great facilities and surroundings, including altitude training in Sierra Nevada, as well as train with a good mix of athletes.
Stojanovic is now in preparation to be in top shape for two upcoming Pan American Cups and then focus on Ishigaki ITU Triathlon World Cup. The aim is points, points, points with one thing in mind: London 2012.
“It would definitely mean a dream come true,” said Stojanovic. “But my biggest desire to get on that start list in London is because of the current status of triathlon in Serbia. If I qualify I will become the first Serbian in history to do so and that will automatically result in much more attention and appreciation for our sport. I believe it will be huge for the future development of triathlon in Serbia, as the Olympics is really important to Serbians and the whole nation watches it closely on TV.”
Stojanovic explains that it is more than just a dream. It would add special value to all the years of consistent training as well as lifestyle, education and family sacrifice working towards the goal.
“I’m a strong believer that if you work hard and have sincere desire, one day it will pay off no matter if at that moment it seems useless,” said Stojanovic.
Burrell has watched this talented and dedicated individual grow and develop, overcoming the odds to race the ITU circuit.
“Ogy lets nothing stand in the way of his progress. He never makes excuses and always keeps looking for ways to get better,” said Burrell. “He has excellent family support and despite the fact he has to rely heavily on family funding to achieve his goals, his family is always right there behind him.”
If the 21-year old accrues enough points from the three events he will then aim for two ITU World Triathlon Series races hoping to lead him on to his Olympic dream. The Serbian is no doubt an inspiration and ready for this ultimate challenge.
As Stojanovic puts it, ‘There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.’