It is the stuff that movies are made of. Coming back from major surgery that could have resulted in paralysis to win Olympic gold would be a story made in heaven, if the 27-year-old American-born Serb Milorad Čavić can pull it off at the London 2012Olympic Games. In Belgrade, Čavić told W!LDRooSTeR that his training is on track to win the medal that was snatched from his fingertips in a controversial decision at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
In a close finish that still commands debate even among officials, Čavić was pipped to the post by Michael Phelps. But the result stands and Čavić came home with the silver medal. Had the decision fallen his way, Čavić’s career could have ended there and then. “I deeply feel that I would have stopped swimming had I won the Olympic gold,’ he said. “Maybe I would have continued for one more year but that’s it.”
Knowing that he came so close is an encouragement that spurs Čavićon to achieve the one title that still alludes him. “Of course, gold is always the goal and I think I have a shot at it but I have to keep working in ways to convince myself that I am working smarter, harder and better than everyone else, if I am going to do it,’ he said. “As far as swimming physiology goes, maybe for most swimmers I am beyond my peak – this will be my fourth Olympics – but I love hanging out with the older swimmers and so it’s not an issue to me. I’m right there and I’m pretty sure that I have a damn good chance of winning that gold medal. I’m hoping that things will work out and everything will come back to me. I’ve proved that I can swim fast, I just need to do it better.”
The psychological impact of the delayed and disputed decision over who won which medal in 2008 was something that Čavić had to get over quickly. “When they asked me about the race in the press conference, I hadn’t reviewed it and, in all honesty, I was in such exhilaration at the fact I had won silver that I was lost in my own world,’ he said. “I felt no sorrow. I remember saying, if I did get defeated then I accept defeat. >
>To add injury to insult, Čavić suffered a serious back injury that threatened to prematurely end his career, last year. But thanks to the best medical care and plenty of determination on his part, Čavić is back in the pool with his eyes firmly set on that elusive gold medal.
“In May 2010 I went rafting in Banja Luka,’ he said. “The water was relatively cold, about 18 degrees, and when I had a gym session the day after I was still a little rock cold. I started doing some work but my back hurt so bad that I went home and lay in bed all day and night. Then in the morning, I couldn’t get up alone. I thought it was one of those things that would pass with a day or so rest but it didn’t. It was continually extremely painful. More pain than I had ever experienced. I realised then that I needed to do something. I had back trouble before and that would pass with rest but this wasn’t going away.
“I went to Germany and consulted with several doctors and all of them told me that this is either the end of your career or you’re going to have to do something risky. The operation was the only way for me to live a normal life. Believe me, when you are laying in bed and you can’t get up on your own, when you take a shower and you can’t wipe your leg off, it really puts things into perspective. You stop thinking about your career. You start thinking, I’d really like to live a normal life, to be able to sit down and get up on my own. I’d like to put my shoes on. The Minister of Health in Serbia recommended what he said was the best neurosurgeon in Europe, a German doctor at the University of Munich. I went and spoke with him and he said, if you’ve got a chance to continue, I’ll help you out, and that is what he did. It cost me an arm and a leg but you can’t put a price on your health and your life.
“When I consider the possibility of my career being over, I think the worst part in the world for most injured athletes is, how will this affect me fifteen, twenty years down the road, when I don’t have that inner peace. I wouldn’t know what could have been. ‘What if’ is the worst question in the world. Realistically, from the other side I tried to make myself feel better about the situation by telling myself, look, you’ve already done everything an athlete can do in sport – except for win the Olympic gold. I was a World Champion in the 50m butterfly, I’ve broken world records in the short and long course pool, I’ve moved the limits of what was humanly possible. I was a part of all this. Even in the Olympics, my race is in the Hall of Fame. It is something that won’t be forgotten. When we are finished with what we are here to do, we all want to be remembered in some way. I know I will be remembered in swimming circles and I tried to make me feel better about the whole process. That self-realisation. But I did the operation and the doctor told me, what I did should give you the opportunity to do what you want to do but you’re going to have to be really smart about it. I needed to get myself back in to it slowly but he told that he believes I will be able to do what I have been doing, if not better. So far he’s been right. I am able to do things now that I wasn’t able to do in the past.”
Now back to full fitness, Čavić is going all out for success at London 2012. “When I operated on my back last year it was an operation that for just about 95% of swimmers it would have ended their career – but now I’m back and I’m doing great,’ he said. “I am really happy with my progress. It took me one full year to recover after that surgery. I feel pretty good when I keep up my exercises but when I stop I start to feel pain. That is something I have to deal with for the rest of my life. I am not going to be able to stop working out. I have to keep going. It’s good for my health but it is a real burden to consider that, if I ever let myself go, I am going to have some trouble. But it’s an incentive.
“I’m training hard and I believe I am more fit than I was in 2008. But one thing you lose after such an operation is quick muscle fibres, the explosive muscle memory. If you don’t use something you become less good at it, and it has taken me a long time to get that explosivity that I once had. But, aerobically I am doing things that I was never able to do before.
“If my health holds up, if my back holds up and I keep going the way I’m going, it is totally realistic that we can expect something special in London. People look to my last results in the World Championships and they realise that maybe I hadn’t had enough time after the surgery. Most of them believe that I am never going to really recover from it. But I’m big on the fact that I have recovered and I will be ready. I am really excited about it. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t absolutely believe that I could do it. I don’t need this. But we’ll see.”
As every athlete knows, physical ability is only a fraction of the recipe for sporting success. Mental prowess, motivation and determination to win through are the key drivers that make champions. “I think I am perhaps more motivated than ever,’ said Čavić. “I want to prove to myself and to everyone else that, just because you had back surgery, doesn’t mean it is over. There are avenues to get it done. I am not necessarily saying that I want to be a hero but I think it would be a really cool thing, not just to win a medal, but also to be the first guy to do it. I want to show everyone that I have been doing everything without lost time. Maybe I didn’t work as hard or for as long as they did, but I was smarter than they were. It’s a game for me. I have made a game of it. I’m behind and maybe I’m not able to do things that other people are doing, but I’m smarter than them. I’m convinced of it, and I trust my team and my staff.
“In my general nature I am a surprisingly optimistic person. I like to see things from a positive stance. But generally in Serbia, partially because of politics and the economic situation, people are very negative. When they talk about goals and what they would like, they so often focus on the reasons why they cannot succeed in something as opposed to focusing on their strengths and why they can do something.
“Like Oscar Wilde said, there are two tragedies in life: One of them is getting what you want, and the other one is not getting what you want. One tragedy would have been quitting because I would have fulfilled the dream, and if I’d swum just a bit faster I would have broken the world record, which would have been the perfect happy ending. The other tragedy is not getting what you want, in my case the Olympic gold. As a result, I stayed hungry for more and I think that’s beautiful. That drove me on. The Olympic gold is the goal, the pinnacle, and I am going to give absolutely everything to achieve that goal, but in all reality, I think any athlete – with the exception of Michael Phelps – would be happy to win any medal. What shine it has is not that important. If you’ve ever held an Olympic medal it is the most fantastic thing. The size of it, the weight of it, just everything about that medal is so right.”
Coming back after such serious injury is never easy. For an athlete at the peak of his game, to be told that his career might have hit the skids, it can be devastating. “I am certain that most people would have been crushed, wouldn’t have pulled through it,’ said Čavić. “But one of the things that sets me about from other people is my self-determination. I was so good at what I was doing. I breathed swimming, I dreamed it. I’d have daydreams. Instead of dreaming about girls in class, I would literally dream about a perfect race. I would wake up in the morning, throw my legs out of the side of my bed and I would count strokes to the door of my room. I would see the goal in everything.
“It was like a sickness, it was an obsession, and everywhere I turned, everything was a game. One thing that makes a swimmer great is the ability to make a thousand mini games per day. Swimming in general is a very boring sport to train but for somebody who respects sport and knows a bit about it, it is quite exciting to watch when it comes to race time. But to stay in the sport you have to have fun during training and during the day. You have to make a game of it. Everything has to be a small game. What would be completely annoying to someone else, I completely make a game of it. For that reason, I really consider myself a game master.”
That unswerving focus and keen determination to get back on top has contributed greatly to his hopes of winning gold in London. “When swimming is in question, I am quite tough on myself,’ said Čavić.“I expect so much of myself. I don’t see it as a job. My work is emotionally connected to me, whereas other people go to work every day and think, ‘fuck, I have to be here from eight until four’. Of course, I go to workout and think, ‘shit, it’s going to be a tough day’ but it does give me a lot of satisfaction, especially after a tough workout. When I can stand under the shower for ten minutes and reflect, I do feel good about myself. Of course, I have such high expectations, especially when deep down inside of me I feel so strongly that, I am here and I am capable of doing something that I still haven’t done.”
As much as Čavić prepares himself for a return to the Olympic pool, he is only too aware of the impact that could be made by a new-comer to the games. In 2000, he was that fresh-faced new kid off the blocks. “My first Olympics was when I was 16,’ he said. “ I was definitely too young, but it meant a lot to me to be able to race some guys who were world champions. No one really knew of me, apart from the shenanigans I pulled in Eindhoven in 2008. I do consider myself as under the radar and I think that was to my advantage. Every Olympic year there is someone who comes out of nowhere. That’s the magic behind the Olympic games. That’s who I was.
“The reason I am still doing what I am doing is because inside of me I have this burning desire to keep going, to prove to myself that I can do it. It’s all about having that inner peace.
But it is not success at any cost. “I am so against the use of drugs,’ Čavić was quick to point out. “In 2004 they had a poll within the Olympic village and the question was ‘if you can cheat, win the gold, and no one will ever find out about it – but under the condition that you die in exactly ten years – would you accept those terms?’ I think an astonishing 76% said yes. For me personally, to live with that knowledge would just kill me.
“I am a man of honour, respect and great pride. It would absolutely kill me if in the streets people called me champion or took pictures with me, but deep down I would know why I was a champion. I just don’t understand that. For me, it’s all about that inner peace that people have to live with. It is about proving myself, knowing that I gave everything there was to give. If I succeed, great. But if I don’t, at least I will know that inside and I will never regret it. I did what I did when I was able to do it and I don’t have any regrets. I feel I’ve done enough for one athlete to be at peace but I just want to try to do it. If I can, that’s wonderful. If not, it’s OK. It’s like Michael Jordan once said: I can accept failure but I cannot accept not trying.”