April 4, 2014
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- He's been competing for the University of Virginia track & field team for less than three weeks, and he already ranks No. 2 in school history in the discus throw and No. 3 in the shot put.
Meet Filip Mihaljevic, a 6-7, 240-pound freshman who came to UVa in January from the renowned ASK Split athletics club in Croatia.
"He's definitely a program-changer kind of kid," Bryan Fetzer said.
"He has the potential to do more than I did," Martin Maric said.
Fetzer is UVa's director of track & field/cross country. Maric, one of the Cavaliers' assistant coaches, is a two-time Olympian who as a University of California senior in 2009 won the NCAA outdoor title in the discus.
Mihaljevic, 19, set a personal record last weekend at the Texas Relays in Austin, throwing the discus 198 feet, 2 inches. Only one Cavalier has surpassed that mark: Yemi Ayeni, who threw 200-6 in 2007.
"Our goal is 205 this year," Maric said.
Maric, 29, who represented Croatia at the Olympics in 2008 (Beijing) and 2012 (London), has a PR in the discus of 218-3.
"By the end of his career, if he stays healthy, he should get that mark," Maric said of Mihaljevic, who has dual citizenship in Croatia and Bosnia.
Like Mihaljevic, Maric competed for the ASK club in Split, Croatia, a city that has produced such elite athletes as Toni Kukoc (basketball), Goran Ivanisevic (tennis), Sandra Perkovic (discus), Ivano Balic (handball) and Blanka Vlasic (high jump).
"It's so athletically rich," said Fetzer, who compared Split to this state's Tidewater region.
Mihaljevic (pronounced Mee-holla-vich) was born in Bosnia, and he lived there with his family until he was 17. Then he moved from Livno, where his parents still live, to Split, where one of his cousins coached track & field.
To that point, Mihaljevic's focus had been soccer, but his cousin suggested he try track, and "I said, `Why not?' " Mihaljevic recalled this week at Lannigan Field.
He was a natural.
"I tried shot, and I threw five kilos like 13 meters the first time, which was pretty good," Mihaljevic said, "and I continued, and now I'm here."
His best event is the discus, but Mihaljevic has great promise in the shot put, too. He ranks sixth in the NCAA in the discus this season and 22nd in the shot put. His PR in the shot is 59 feet, 6.25 inches, which he threw in Austin last weekend.
"I use the word `special' a lot when I describe him to other people," Fetzer said. "He's a special young man. He's one of the best in the NCAA right now, as a true freshman, as a 19-year-old. That doesn't happen in any sport very often.
"We've got to do our due diligence as a staff and as a program to make sure he develops into the type of student-athlete he can be."
The next opportunity to see Mihaljevic compete comes Saturday at Lannigan Field, where the UVa men's and women's teams host Cal and Michigan in a tri-meet that begins at 3 p.m. Admission is free.
In Split, where he trained under Maric's former coach, Mihaljevic established himself as one of the elite junior throwers in Europe. Mihaljevic had heard of Maric but wasn't familiar with U.S. college athletics.
"First, when my high school coach told me Martin was here, I was like, `Why is he here?' " Mihaljevic said. "He told me in America you can study and practice together, and so I was like, `That would be a good opportunity for me, too.' "
Maric, who joined Fetzer's staff at UVa in September 2012, said he "heard about this kid who's a great discus thrower" in Split. Maric and Mihaljevic eventually met, and what Maric told him about the University and its track program piqued Mihaljevic's interest.
"Last year I had pretty good results, and everybody expected I would go professional this year," Mihaljevic said, "but I didn't want to do just sports. I want to finish my school first, and that was my goal for life: have a good school and at the same time have a good result in track."
In Europe, Fetzer said, "you're either competing or you're a student. There's not really an in-between. He can do the best of both worlds here. Get a good education, and get a chance to compete and train amongst some of the best people in the world."
That Mihaljevic would be working with Maric made UVa attractive to the national track coaches in Croatia.
"Because of the respect level that Martin brings as a person and as a coach, I couldn't see them letting their prodigy go elsewhere," Fetzer said. "Because they know Martin's going to take care of him in a well-rounded manner.
"He's going to help him get better, which obviously he already has. In Filip's first two college meets, in his four competitions -- the two shots and the two discus -- he's thrown a lifetime best in each event both times."
Until he arrived here in January, Mihaljevic had never been to the United States. In Split, he lived in a dormitory, "like here," he said. "So when I moved here, it was not so hard for me to not live with my family."
Still, he said, he experienced culture shock early this semester. Having in Maric a coach and mentor who spoke his native language helped Mihaljevic with the transition.
"The first two weeks were pretty hard for me, because of language and because of classes," Mihaljevic said. "I didn't know what was going on there. I was a little scared about it. But now I'm home here. It's easy for me to practice and to go to school at the same time, which in Europe it's not."
He was fluent in English when he got to America, "but I learned more in three months here than in three years in Croatia, so that's helpful for me," Mihaljevic said, smiling.
He hopes to major in international relations at UVa. Another goal: to represent Croatia in the 2016 Olympics.
For now, he's concentrating on his technique. But Mihaljevic will work on his body, too. The 6-5 Maric weighed about 260 pounds in his competitive prime, and he expects Mihaljevic to fill out as he grows older.
"He has a lot of room to progress," Maric said.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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