Croatian Sensations Making A Mark

Jan. 16, 2008

By Rebecca Rogers
The Daily

SEATTLE -- Each year, thousands of students from around the country come to Seattle to start their college careers at the UW. Some come from small towns, some from big cities and some even come from other countries. Niko Micin and Petra Radovic are two people who fall into the latter category.

Micin, a junior, and Radovic, a sophomore, were born and raised in Croatia, and while they may have ended up at the UW, their experiences here and before college are what set them apart from the rest of the students on campus.

Micin and Radovic are both on the UW swim team. They are both from Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and met in fourth grade on their local swim team.

'The first time I met Niko he was crying because his girlfriend had broken up with him,' says Radovic with a laugh. While Micin denies this, the two just laugh it off and admit that they have been friends for so long that people would often mistake them for a couple. It is no coincidence, then, that they both ended up in Seattle.

Their story starts like that of most athletes: Both started swimming when they were young. For Radovic, it was when she was 7 because her parents wanted her to do a sport. For Micin it was when he was 6 because he didn't get enough vitamin D as a kid, so the doctors suggested he try swimming.

As in most European countries, soccer is the most popular sport, with swimming lower down on the list.

'My dad was a basketball player, so he wanted me to play basketball,' says Radovic. 'I was tall, so my dad thought I would eventually get into basketball. But I turned out to be pretty good at swimming and never even tried basketball.'

One look at Radovic and it's a wonder why she didn't follow her dad's advice. Petra is 6 foot 3 inches, taller than most of the women on the UW basketball team. However, her success in the water, especially since she's been in Seattle, leaves nothing to be questioned.

Radovic says that her parents always knew she would come to the United States to go to college. They thought it would be a great opportunity, especially since the college system in Croatia doesn't allow students to play a sport as well as do academics. But as with her parent's plans for her to play basketball, Radovic wasn't all that sure about this decision of theirs, either.

'My parents wanted me to go but I was scared,' says Radovic said. 'I waited till the last minute. I remember my mom coming to pick me up after school with all the papers, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to go.'

However, Radovic followed her parents' advice, and headed to the United States.

Unlike Radovic, Micin knew from a young age that he wanted to come to the United States for college. When he was in seventh grade he had a growth spurt and really started to excel in the water. Micin was so eager to come to the United States he almost came here for high school, but his parents didn't let him. As an alternative, they sent him to an international high school so that he would learn English faster for when he came to the United States for college.

'I knew I was going to go to America,' Micin said. 'My senior year I even flew out to the men's swimming NCAA meet in Minnesota with my coach to meet some of the top college coaches and get my name out there.'

In Minnesota, Niko met Mickey Wender, the former UW swim coach, who was there with the Huskies' sole qualifier, Bruno Barbic. Barbic is also from Zagreb, and after talking to Mickey and Bruno, Washington was an easy sell for Niko.

Niko finally got his chance to come to the United States and felt instantly at home here. He loved the college life, and any homesickness was eased by his friendship with Barbic and another teammate, Ivan Perhat, who was born in Croatia but moved to L.A. when he was young.

However, after Micin's freshman year, Wender got a coaching job (at Army) and Barbic transferred to Northwestern. Whitney Hite, former University of California assistant women's swim coach, replaced Wender, and a new era of Husky swimming began.

This was in 2006, when Radovic was a freshman and Micin a sophomore. Hite's philosophy on swimming was a little different than Wender's. The team was pushed a lot harder in the pool, they started spinning and lifting regularly, and in the spring they had to get up at 4:45 a.m. every morning so they could make the 45-minute drive to Federal Way to swim in the long-course pool there.

This was a hard transition for all the swimmers, but especially for Micin and Radovic.

'When I first came here I didn't know English as well as Niko, and practices were so much different than what I was used to in Croatia,' says Radovic. 'It was really hard to do homework constantly and swim. I've never studied so much in my life.'

For Micin, the new training in the pool was definitely the hardest to get used to. In Croatia, he was used to swimming just once a day and if he had a big test or a lot of homework, he would just skip practice all together.

'Sports aren't as serious in Croatia as they are here,' says Micin. 'People just do it more out of love instead of because they want to get into some big school. But they also aren't as mentally prepared to be so elite, to give up so much for swimming.'

But there were good things about being here as well. Both Micin and Radovic say they like being on a team and the experiences they have had since they've been here.

'I'm having life experiences that you can't learn in any book,' says Radovic. 'I like being part of a team and having a group of people behind you all the time.'

While the transition has been hard, and both admit that they weren't sure if they wanted to come back to the United States at times, in the end both Micin and Radovic wouldn't change anything about their experiences so far.

'Whitney pushes us to our limit every day,' says Micin. 'His big philosophy is `figure it out,' and you learn to live by it, to have no excuses and just results. I've made a lot of great friends here and the opportunities that coming here will set up for me the rest of my life will really make it worth it.'

Radovic agrees. While after her freshman year she wasn't sure if she wanted to come back, she is glad for everything she has learned since she's been here and for the experiences she has had.

'Being able to swim like we do, go to school, and be so far away from home really teaches you a lot,' says Radovic. 'It makes you feel like you can do anything in life, that nothing will be as hard as some of the things I've done here.'

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