As Zlatan Hamzic stepped onto the blocks for the finals of the 200-yard breaststroke at the NCAA Division II Championships in March, there was more on his mind than just competing for a national title.
A year earlier, Hamzic, now a junior in applied mathematics and economics from Pancevo, Serbia, had finished second in the event as a freshman and was among the favorites to win the race in 2009. He was carrying the weight of those expectations on his shoulders before the race even got under way.
“I remember that Coach (Doug) Grooms was really confident about the race,” Hamzic says.
“He was smiling and asking me, ‘Are you ready?’ I think it only made me more nervous. I’m just kidding. It felt good that my coach was confident in me, but I was still nervous. The previous year I was second behind the current record holder, Jakub Jiracek, and now that he was gone I was the favorite.”
That same year, Hamzic received the tragic news that his father had died on the third day of the NCAA Championships.
“It threw me off balance,” he says. “I barely had any sleep the night before the 200-yard breaststroke and it was really hard to pull myself together. But with the help of my teammates, Coach Grooms, my mom and my brother, I managed to get back into the pool and do the race. I remember Jiracek telling me after that race, ‘200 is yours next year, my friend,’ so I couldn’t let him down, right?”
Staying with the plan Grooms put in place for him, Hamzic took over the race after the second turn and won by a whopping 2.82 seconds in a school-record time of 1:58.03. Although he didn’t quite reach Jiracek’s NCAA record, he had something even more special – a national championship, the first ever on an individual basis for a Missouri S&T student-athlete.
“In my mind I dedicated that race to my father, Mehmed, and I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about him,” Hamzic says. “As I was swimming, I knew that I just had to do all the things I’ve practiced with Coach Grooms and that my swimming tactics would come through.
“The experience was wonderful,” he says. “I was so happy that I didn’t let Coach Grooms down and that everything we did in the last two years fell into place to win the national title. It’s a beautiful feeling to be first. Any athlete will tell you that, but to be the first S&T student to win first place in an NCAA individual race feels even better. And of course the cherry on top is receiving that trophy that says ‘Champion’ and that little NCAA plate colored in gold.”
Where is that trophy? It’s back in Serbia, where Hamzic returned this summer to compete in the World University Games. It sits on a shelf next to a vice-champion trophy where, as he says, “My mom can show it off to all of her friends.”