Tough love drove Serbia’s swimming champ Milorad Čavić to achieve his best, he said. But that same force for good drove a wedge between Čavić and his father, and could keep them apart as Čavić prepares for London 2012. The American-born Serb has told how his father refused to speak to him for three months after Čavic failed to bring home a medal, and that rift could keep him away from the Olympics.
“I don’t mean to insult or spit on my father but he was really, really hard on me,’ said Čavić. “In 2004 I had some trouble with my swimming suit during the semi final of the 100m butterfly. I was ready to win a medal. I thought the bronze was completely realistic. I was leading the first 50m by a long shot. I turned and coming home from the 50m to 60m mark, which is my strongest part of the race, I went from first to last.
“Everyone knew right away there was something horribly wrong. Sure enough, I didn’t qualify.
“After that, my father did not speak to me for three months. I had failed him. This is the level we are talking about. It was very extreme. I tried to talk with him about it one time. The best answer I got was that he had watched the documentary about Andre Agassi and saw how hardcore his father was towards him. Very tough love. But I hadn’t done anything wrong and, even if I did, this was not the way to behave. They don’t understand basic things, like it is OK to fail. From failure, you have to use that and learn.
“My father grew up without a father, without a role model, so I forgave him for that. He just didn’t know. Most people would have been crushed, wouldn’t have pulled through it. But one of the things that sets me apart from other people is my self-determination.
Throughout his training, Čavićlooked to his mother for support, even though she did not always understand his athletic focus. “My mother has always been a very positive force in my life, so I really hope she will come to London,’ said Čavić. “My mother is my queen. Good or bad, she’s there for me. But my father not so much. I haven’t been back to LA in about a year and a half. My mother visited me this last August. I don’t get to see them very often.”
Čavić was born in Anaheim, Southern California to immigrant parents. His father’s Serbian upbringing formed his attitude to raising children, Čavić said. “My mother came from a village and my father grew up here [Belgrade]. During the communist era, when he was growing up, he didn’t have a father. He was always studying and his mother was very communist. She pushed him to study, study, study. He was growing up on the outskirts of the city and during that era in that region of the city the students had to study Russian. But they moved to another region, just so he could study English. It was that kind of time. It was really hard.
“Unfortunately my parents were never athletes and my brother and I were always great in what we did. My brother got his uni completely paid for, as did I, and then he went off to play basketball professionally in Europe for two seasons. It was very good for my family, financially especially, but the downside of that is that they never really understood. It is completely a mindset. My dad sees Kobe Bryantdoing these amazing things with the ball and he’s like: did you see what he just did? You have to learn that. But you cannot learn some things. They are just instinct. You either have it or you don’t.
“To be an athlete was a great thing but for a lot of people, academics was the only way. That’s what [my father] did and, as a result, he never really understood the mental aspect of sport or understood sports in general. For my younger brother, it was really hard growing up beside me since I was so much more successful at what I was doing than he was at that time, even though he was a star basketball player in his team. He was never quite achieving the same level of things as I was, and so my dad was extra hard on him, of course. But in life, as hard as my dad was on me and my brother, things turned out OK. For that same reason, who knows, maybe his ways and his methods were justified.
“I often see the families of my colleagues back at uni and even today, through good and bad they have the same support from their families and I think to myself, how much stronger I could have been had I not gotten down on myself as much as I did at one point. But I guess it made me stronger. And I’ll never know what could have been. I am still too young to know why they did some things and didn’t do some others.
“I am fortunate that things worked out the way they did but, as an athlete who’s been there and back, I feel I will do things much differently with my children.”