Croatia's Duje Draganja sets world record in 50-meter freestyle at short-course swim worlds
Updated: April 11, 2008
MANCHESTER, England -- Duje Draganja has set a world record in the men's 50-meter freestyle at the short-course swimming world championships. The Croatian swimmer, wearing Speedo's LZR Racer suit, finished in 20.81 seconds Friday, breaking the mark of 20.93 set by Sweden's Stefan Nystrand in 2007. Through three days of the meet, seven world records have been broken.
Cal swimmer a national hero in Croatia
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
As a swimmer, Duje Draganja is used to quick turns, but this was absurd.
In the last several months, the pride of the University of California and Split, Croatia, has 1) broken his hand slamming it on the wall of the pool at Berkeley's Spieker Aquatics Complex, 2) taken the silver medal in the 50-meter sprint at the Athens Olympics, 3) won a bronze at the world championships in Indianapolis, 4) been involved in an accident in which he was momentarily trapped in a burning sports car and 5) won five medals in the Pac-10 championships.
Swimming may be a country-club sport for many collegians, but not for Draganja. The pool he trained in as a kid still has bullet holes from the civil war that ravaged the former Yugoslavia.
"For me, it was the normal way of living,'' he said. "I didn't go to school for a year (at age 8) because of the war. I couldn't train for a year and a half.''
At a park where Draganja went to play soccer with other kids, a Serbian soldier trained his semi-automatic weapon on him. It was that kind of a childhood.
"When I think about it now, getting in contact with guns at 7 seems strange,'' he said. "My city was under siege for a year. People adjust to what's going on around them. There were sniper shootings. We lived near a military hospital. The favorite magazine of kids at the time was called Soldier. It was about military equipment and guns.''
Talking about war seemed incongruous on a sun-kissed day in Berkeley. He was sitting by the Spieker pool as his teammates churned the water in preparation for the NCAA championships in Minneapolis on March 24-26. With a big hand from the 6-foot-5, 178-pound Draganja, Cal scored its first dual-meet triumph over Stanford in 14 years, but finished second to the Cardinal at the Pac-10s in Long Beach. Now the Bears will send their largest-ever contingent, 18 swimmers, to the nationals.
These are clearly not your average Bears. Half of them are foreign born, recruited by peripatetic co-head coach Mike Bottom. "I've stayed with Duje's family,'' he said. "His mom's a doctor, and his dad is a businessman. He has two younger sisters who don't swim. But they'd be great swimmers. They're tall and skinny like Duje and have big feet.''
Don't call him Doo-ie, by the way. "Everybody tells me that's the dumbest name you want to have,'' Draganja said with a laugh. It's DU-ya DRAG-on-ya, if you please.
At the nationals, the public-address announcer should get plenty of practice at it. Draganja, 22, has the fastest times this season in the 50 (19. 22), the 100 freestyle (42.14) -- teammate Rolandas Gimbutis is second at 42. 54 -- and the 100-meter butterfly (45.63).
He won all three finals at the Pac-10 meet and helped Cal win two relays, but he was not voted Swimmer of the Meet. That honor went to Stanford's Gary Marshall, who broke three conference records. Nort Thornton, Cal's head coach for more than three decades, thought Draganja should have won it, but dismissed any talk of a backlash by the other coaches against a foreigner.
"I hope not because almost every team in the conference has at least one (import),'' Thornton said.
Draganja competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney at age 17. One of the best junior swimmers in Europe, he was pursued by a host of American colleges, but chose Cal because of the Bears' international roster and Bottom's reputation of developing sprinters, such as NCAA and American record-holder Anthony Ervin. He didn't even visit Berkeley before committing. There was one other consideration in his college choice: "I have to live near water. I grew up on the coastline.''
Taking a trip to the coastal city of Dubrovnik to visit his father after the world championships in October nearly cost him his life. Exhausted from the grueling training and endless public appearances, he was driving a rented Mazda RX8 that hit a rock in the road on a rainy morning. The impact on a wheel caused the car to slide into a wall.
"The car caught on fire while I was in there,'' he said. "I couldn't open my doors or windows. My right hand got burned a little, and my feet, too."
He managed to escape but sustained a slight concussion and had to wear a neck brace for a week. His training was set back a couple of months. This was big news in Croatia, where Draganja had been named Athlete of the Year for his Olympic medal, one of five by that country. He took second in the 50 just 29 minutes after placing seventh in the 100 fly.
He also stirred a controversy in the Games by insisting on wearing his Cal swim cap. Some people back home thought he was snubbing his country, but they later got over it.
"I thought it was great,'' Bottom said. "The problem is, it's illegal (to wear a cap other than your country's) in the Olympics. They could have disqualified him. He's the only Olympian who has ever done that, and he'll be the last one.''
"I just felt like it,'' Draganja said. "I swam a lot of good races with it. I felt most comfortable in it.'' He found out it was illegal with two races left but decided, "If they haven't DQ'ed me by now, they're not going to. ''
Some Olympic medalists put on weight when they make the rounds of awards dinners. Draganja lost 30 pounds after Athens, from 185 to 155, in a whirlwind of public functions and charity appearances. "I didn't have time to eat,'' he said. "If you don't eat for a couple of weeks, you get into a habit of not eating. It was strange because my family did these parties where there was lots of food. I didn't have a desire to eat. I never had a normal lunch or dinner.''
Now he's back up to 178, and still a national hero in Croatia. Bottom drove with him across the border from Slovenia and the border guard said, "Welcome, Mr. Draganja!''
That he did well in the Olympics in August is a tribute to his recuperative powers. He had broken his hand eight weeks earlier while practicing finishes at Cal.
Maybe it's his zany humor that helps him keep things in perspective. "He's one of the most fun individuals you'll ever be around,'' Bottom said. "Life to him is always fun. He's always got a joke or comment about something. ''
Will he try for the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing? "I don't think a lot into the future,'' Draganja said. "I think about this moment and maybe a couple weeks ahead. I might go for 2012 or 2016. I'm young and still have a lot of time.''
Fast facts on Cal's Duje Draganja
-- 6-foot-5, 178 pounds
-- Silver medalist in Athens Games
-- The NCAA meet is March 24-26
-- Fastest collegian in 50 and 100 free, 100 fly
-- Got away with wearing illegal Cal cap in Olympic competition
E-mail Tom FitzGerald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle