Imagine you are 17 years old and one of the most promising talents in the sport you play. And then imagine representing a country that has never won an Olympic medal.
This is the reality for Bosnian and Herzegovinian (BiH) swimmer Lana Pudar, who is aiming for the podium at the Olympic Games in Paris next year.
“Of course, I want a medal,” Pudar said in an interview, and her face lit up. “It’s something special for my country, for everyone. I will go down in the history of sport. I think I’m close to a medal because I was fourth (at the World Championships) in Fukuoka this year. I need to participate in more races, I need to learn how to compete with the best athletes. I have to improve everything. I have to improve my training, I have to reduce my time, and swim even faster. But I think I have that potential,” Lana Pudar emphasized.
There is no doubt that Lana has potential in her favorite discipline, the 200-meter butterfly, although the difference between her and one of her main rivals was clear at the recent World Cup race in Berlin.
Despite winning the bronze medal in the final stretch, she finished nearly two seconds behind China’s Zhang Yufei, the race winner and reigning Olympic champion. Still, the race gave her valuable experience competing in top international sports.
“It is very important because this is the beginning of the new season,” says Pudar.
“It’s important to see where I am standing now and what I still have to do to improve, to be at the best level at the Olympics.”
BiH is one of only four European countries that have never won an Olympic medal (the others are Albania, Andorra, and Monaco), but Pudar is in a good position to change that. The gold medal, which she won at last year’s European Championship in Rome, signaled her arrival at the senior level, turning her overnight into a star at home – in the Balkans.
However, not everyone celebrates the victory of this teenage girl. In neighboring Serbia, nationalist newspapers criticized her because she decided to compete for BiH, given that her father is a Serb. One particularly disparaging headline read: “New champion of Europe, she didn’t want Serbia, she chose BiH!”
And while some are trying to gain political capital from her success and claim her as their own, the swimmer herself wants to calm these tensions.
“I see that people especially love me in my country, but I also see that my neighbors respect me,” she says. “I wanted to swim for BiH because it is my country. I was born there, I grew up there, and I want to do great things for my hometown and my country,” Pudar explained.
It didn’t help Lana Pudar that her father Velibor was a famous athlete himself, who played football and was a coach in numerous clubs in the country and abroad, including in Serbia. Overall, however, she still feels that she benefits from her family’s sporting background:
“It’s good to have someone who understands the sport and the sacrifices that come with playing sports,” Lana stated. “They never put pressure on me, neither he nor my mother. Everyone is just happy. They believe in my coaches, that’s the most important thing.”
The sacrifices Lana talks about are huge. While her friends go shopping or to the cinema, she undergoes a tiring daily routine.
This includes waking up at five in the morning to do her first training session of the day, outside the water, followed by a couple of two- to two-and-a-half-hour sessions in the pool and some time in the gym.
Complicating matters is the fact that her hometown, Mostar, does not have an Olympic swimming pool, meaning she has to travel further afield to train, usually to the capital Sarajevo, or to Banja Luka.
“My life is very difficult and different from the life of other teenagers,” admits Lana Pudar. “I have to go to swimming camps all over Europe and the world, so I’m away from home a lot. It’s a really tiring schedule. Meanwhile, when I’m at home, I have to go to school. It’s really busy.”
“I’m a very simple lady,” she adds, laughing. “I don’t have any hobbies, except for swimming. But it’s not even my hobby, it’s like a full-time job.”
So is it all business and not sport? “I find some time, but not very often,” says the 17-year-old. And here the old proverb applies, ‘no pain, no gain’, especially considering that many people consider the 200-meter butterfly race to be the most difficult swimming discipline.
“It was really painful,” Pudar said after the final in Berlin. But she does not doubt that she has what it takes to close the gap on her rivals.
“I believe in myself, I believe in my coaches and my training,” she says. “This is a really good start to the season,” Lana Pudar concluded, N1 reports.