Two-time NCAA champion Damir Dugonjic's New Winning Formula
- Follow the NCAA Men's Swimming Diving Championship
By Brian Price
Heading into the NCAA swimming and diving championships this Thursday, Cal's Damir Dugonjic is primed, mentally and physically, to defend his crown. He holds the 100-meter breaststroke national record with a time of 50.86 seconds and has won back-to-back national titles in that event.
After recalibrating his stroke technique, Dugonic is healthy, confident and ready to win his third.
"I was sick twice this year," Dugonic said. "Knowing I'll be healthy going into the NCAA's will be another boost. There are many challenges to consider as a swimmer, goggles coming off, cramping and, above all else maintaining confidence before the race. There's no room for doubt. Regardless of any mistake, I need to know going in that I can win."
Dugonic has a confidence that stems largely from the encouragement that Cal head coach David Durden has provided.
"Our relationship is not just a coach and an athlete; he's my friend," says Dugonjic. "He's the guy I talk to about life, not just swimming and I think anybody else on the team would say the same thing."
According to Dugonjic, Durden helps his athletes free their minds of distractions.
"Damir should focus on absolutely nothing [during his final preparations]. He has done everything that we have asked of him. He just needs to go out and have fun in this last meet," said Durden.
When Dugonjic arrived at Cal three and a half years ago, the words "fun" and "swimming" were never in the same sentence together.
A native of Slovenia, he remembers arduous and repetitive practices in limited high school facilities. He had no enthusiasm for the sport, but his talent was evident.
"Swimming in college [fosters] a team, or rather, a family mentality, that's different than overseas. We work just as hard, but with American swimming there's room for fun. Not everything is serious and business. We have our own pool and coaches dedicated to specific aspects of the program, from technique to strength building."
The choice paid huge dividends. As a sophomore, Dugonjic qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"I don't think I would have made the Olympics had I not come to an American college, like Cal, to train. To be honest, I hated swimming until I became a Golden Bear," Dugonjic said.
Since the Olympics, he has progressed rapidly in his collegiate career.
One of the biggest challenges was to build strength without adding bulk, which creates resistance in the water. Through a carefully planned weight program devised by Nick Folker, Dugonjic was able to build and maintain lean muscle.
"We lift four times a week and emphasize heavy weight with few reps during the season in order to strengthen the lean muscle we built with many reps of a little weight in the beginning of the season."
The central focus of the program is bench press (with 135 pound dumbbells in each hand), pull-ups (with a weighted belt) and squats.
From the beginning, the training challenges were considerable given Dugonjic's unusual height for a breaststroker. At 6-foot-7, optimizing his body type has been key to his success.
Under the guidance of Nort Thornton, Cal's head coach emeritus, Dogonjic's stroke technique improved and helped him win his back-to-back NCAA titles in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Instead of pushing through the wave, he practiced reaching over it to decrease resistance. This required more arm strength to lift higher out of the water. It also required strengthening different muscles.
"More lat pull," Dugonic said. "It was hard to understand it at first, but once I figured it out, my form was much more relaxed and things flowed more naturally."
It's smoother and uses less energy, which is ideal for him at this point in his career. Given his height, endurance has been an issue in longer events like the 200-meter breaststroke, which he's also focused on winning at the NCAA's.
"Before I was just pulling through the wave as hard as I could and using too much power and energy. As a result I would tense up and die [down the stretch]. With the new stroke, I can feel the wave pushing me forward."
The innovative approach is a point of pride for Dugonjic who, unlike typical breaststrokers, derives more power from his upper body than his kick.
"The source of my pull is different. Less kick, more hips and upper body," he said. "My kick is smaller and I try to hide my legs so there's less drag."
Led by Dugonjic, fellow senior Nathan Adrian and sophomore Tom Shields, the Cal men's swimming and diving team may well join the women's team as national champions. Part of the reason is the team's confidence.
Durden sums it up this way: "Damir is pretty relaxed. It is not our style for our guys to place a lot of pressure on themselves. They enjoy racing, they enjoy the spotlight, and there is no bigger stage than the NCAA's and they are really comfortable in that environment. They love to race and Damir is one of those guys who loves the competition."
The action begins this Thursday in Minneapolis, Minn., at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center.
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