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Cal swimmers Cavic and Draganja Cal swimmers Milorad Cavic (left) and Duje Draganja will be representing Serbia-Montenegro and Croatia in the Olympics (photos courtesy of Cal Athletics)

At the Olympics, Cal swimmers become competitors, representing Croatia, Poland, Lithuania, Serbia-Montenegro, Slovenia, Malaysia ...

At swimmers' training bases in Eastern Europe this summer, three UC Berkeley students, three alumni and an incoming freshman have been preparing together for the sports event of their lives – the 2004 Summer Olympic Games.

But while each of these top-notch athletes is associated with the UC Berkeley men's swim team, when they arrive in Athens this week for the Aug. 13-29 games they will become opponents, representing the countries of their roots – Croatia, Poland, Lithuania, Serbia-Montenegro, Slovenia and Malaysia.

"They will be competing against each other," said UC Berkeley men's co-head swim coach Mike Bottom, who has been with these seven swimmers since June, in a recent overseas phone interview. "Yet, they'd rather be competing against each other than against anyone else."

 Duje Draganja and Milorad Cavic
Duje Draganja (top) and Milorad Cavic
 

The UC Berkeley men's swim team "is a great example of Cal diversity," said Duje Draganja, a UC Berkeley senior, via e-mail from Croatia. "We have almost the same number of foreigners as Americans, so it's really fun to train together and swim with people who have completely different opinions and are from different regimes."

In addition to Draganja, the young men heading from Eastern Europe to Greece are Milorad Cavic, a junior on Serbia-Montenegro's team; alumnus Alex Lim, swimming for Malaysia; alumnus Bart Kizierowski, on Poland's team; sophomore Rolandas Gimbutis, swimming for Lithuania; Gordon Kozulj, an alumnus also on Croatia's team; and Godec Jernejgodec, an incoming freshman, on the Slovenian team.

Bottom said Draganja and Cavic, both 6' 5" teammates and good friends, would race against each other in at least one Olympic event. Cavic, raised in Anaheim, has parents who hail from Serbia – known for its bitter past with Draganja's native country, Croatia.

"We've never once judged each other based on the opinions of the countries we swim for," e-mailed Cavic earlier this summer from Slovenia. He said Draganja saw the violence firsthand as a teenager.

"Our families have met before, and I have visited him in (Croatia) for leisure," said Cavic. "We try our best to keep politics out of sport."

"They laugh, then they spar, then they tell each other jokes. It's like watching a couple of lion cubs wrestling around," said Bottom. "They support each other in everything they do … Swimming is the common denominator with all these guys."

 Miguel Molina
 
Also: Interview with Miguel Molina

 

In addition to the swimmers who have been practicing in Eastern Europe, other Cal-affiliated male swimmers at the Olympics will include Ricky Barbosa, a junior, and alumnus Renato Gueraldi, both swimming for Brazil; Daniel Lysaught, a sophomore on Australia's team; junior Miguel Molina, swimming for the Philippines; alumnus Ratapong Sirisanont, swimming for Thailand; and sophomore Jonas Tilly, who will swim for Sweden.

The fact that these student-athletes aren't swimming for the United States doesn't bother Coach Bottom at all. "When they have an opportunity to represent another country," he said, "I encourage them to get as much experience as they can."

A coach on a mission

Bottom, one of the world's top sprint coaches, said he pushes his Cal swimmers to go for the gold in part because he was a 1980 Olympic swimmer who never got to compete. That was the year the United States Olympic Committee boycotted the Moscow Olympic Games.

"As a result, my passion is to get as many guys as I can to go," said Bottom, who coached the two American swimmers who tied for a gold medal in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney – UC Berkeley alumnus Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall, Jr.

Bottom added that he "interjects (striving to be an Olympian) into every swimmers' thought pattern because it's the ultimate."

He said he enjoys being overseas with great UC Berkeley student-athletes because they help him recruit new swimmers. This summer in Slovenia and Croatia, he led a World Sprint Team that included the Cal swimmers.

"Whenever I'm with great Cal athletes, that's recruiting," said Bottom, who at UC Berkeley runs the men's swim team with head coach Nort Thornton. "Part of it is selfish– I want Cal to have great athletes in the future. The Eastern European guys are really interested in bettering themselves academically and athletically. They want a degree, they want to graduate, and then to go back to their countries to do something with it."

Bottom also coaches swimmers off campus because he feels he has much to offer them as a specialty sprint coach, preparing them for races of 100 meters or less. Cavic called Bottom a "sprint guru."

"I was the best in the world as a high school senior," said Bottom, "but I didn't swim my best until after college because of a coach that didn't know how to coach sprinters."

Inspired by two fathers

Cavic, 20, who calls Bottom "a second father," was born in California just months after his parents arrived there from Serbia. They were seeking, he said, "the land of opportunity and a better life." At age 6, he learned to swim, but didn't join a swim team until he was 9. He initially thought competitive swimming took a lot of fun out of being in the pool.

But his father, Dusko, wouldn't let him quit, especially after his son proved how skilled he was in the water.

"My father has watched some documentaries on other pro athletes and how they made it to the top," he said. "Most of them were similar in the way their fathers forced them to keep doing what they did well, which was exactly what happened for me."

Bottom helped convince Cavic, years later as a high school senior, to further his swimming at UC Berkeley. By the time Cavic arrived in the East Bay, he had already participated in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

"The most important factor (in choosing UC Berkeley) was my feeling for the relationship I would have with my coach," said Cavic. "The second factor was the education and prestige. I knew that if I ever became injured and could not continue my career in swimming, I would have the opportunity to graduate with a strong diploma, which would help me feel more secure about my future."

Although Cavic was raised in the United States, he said his parents have instilled in him a pride for his background and for Serbia, and he holds dual citizenship in both places.

He's on the team for Serbia-Montenegro, in part, he said, to help "put it on the map for swimming."

Bottom called Cavic "an incredibly talented athlete" who will qualify to swim the 100-meter long course butterfly and the 50-meter freestyle at the Olympics. "But they're both on the same day, half an hour apart," said Bottom, "and it's really difficult to try to swim them both. You can't do both, do well in both."

Being on this summer's Olympic team has given Cavic, who broke the world record in the 100-meter butterfly in the European Short Course Swimming Championships last December representing Serbia-Montenegro, a "perk," he said. " I'm somewhat famous (in that country). People there recognize me everywhere I go, and it makes me feel good about what I'm doing."

Cavic wears Cal gear when he's overseas, he said, particularly a Cal baseball cap. "I usually end up giving away most of what I brought with me from Cal because people just want it," he said. "It's always fun coming back to Serbia the next year and seeing people wearing those things."

Few are as competitive

Draganja, 21, was born in the Croatian city of Split, one of the oldest cities on the Adriatic coast and a place with a long tradition in sports. Like Cavic, he began swimming at age 6 and also was recruited at age 17 by Bottom to attend UC Berkeley. He left his entire family behind in Croatia.

"I chose Berkeley because of the diversity and the academics," he said. "Berkeley is a well-known school in the world, and everybody advised me to go there."

Bottom said Draganja brings a "great spirit" to UC Berkeley's men's swim team. "He's funny and always makes you laugh," he said. "He's always lighthearted, and yet he's so competitive. I don't know of many people as competitive as Duje."

Earlier this year at the NCAA Championships, Draganja broke the world record in the short course 100-meter freestyle. But when he saw that American Ian Crocker also had broken the world record, but with a faster time, Draganja was dejected, Bottom said.

"When he touched the wall … I was there," said Bottom, "and I put my face in his face to tell him how great he was, how great he did, that I didn't want to see a look of dejection on someone who just broke a world record."

"For him, it's not enough," he said, "He has to be number one."

Draganja said he expects to swim in the Olympics in the 400-meter freestyle relay, the 100-meter butterfly, and the 50- and 100-meter freestyle. " My best event," he said, "is the 100 freestyle."

He knows he may swim against his pal, Cavic, in a race or two, and added, "He is a great swimmer, and I enjoy training and competing against him."

If Draganja has his way, he'll wear his Cal swim cap in Athens. "I always wear my Cal cap whenever I want, but the Olympics is a special case. But I will try."

As they readied to travel to Greece, both Cavic and Draganja said they felt a bit nervous, but prepared to compete.

Like Cavic, Draganja has participated in the Olympics before – at the 2000 games in Sydney - "so there's no reason to panic," he said. "I consider the Olympics just another meet, and that way I don't put pressure on myself. After all, I'm pretty young and can go on to another Olympics if I want."

But Cavic simply glows when looking ahead to Athens.

"This is the summer we've dreamed would come again after four years, and now, finally, it's here," he said. "It's time to put our abilities to the ultimate test."

For information on Cal Olympians in Athens – when they'll compete, in which events, and how well they do – go to CalBears.com and click on 2004 Cal Olympians. Information is not currently available on each Cal Olympian, especially those competing for countries other than the United States. Also check NBC Olympics.com for TV listings, schedules for each sport, and more.