May 24, 2016
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CHARLOTTESVILLE — As they stood on the podium on March 12, they talked among themselves, the eight young men who had just earned All-America honors in the shot put at the NCAA indoor track & field championships in Birmingham, Ala.
The skinny one — relatively speaking — was the NCAA runner-up, Virginia junior Filip Mihaljevic.
“We were trying to calculate the average body weight of the top eight throwers, and all the other throwers were 300, 350, 340, 330,” Mihaljevic recalled. “And I was like, `Oh, I’m 250.’ ”
At 6-7, 253 pounds, Mihaljevic would be considered a giant in most pursuits. Not so in the shot put. He’s gained nearly 15 pounds since he arrived at UVA in January 2014, but he still lacks the bulk of many elite throwers.
Mihaljevic (pronounced Mee-holla-vich) compensates in other ways. He’s run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.6 seconds “multiple times,” said Bryan Fetzer, director of Virginia’s track & field and cross country programs, and he’s exceptionally explosive.
“He’s an incredible athlete,” Fetzer said.
Every fall, the Cavaliers’ coaches put the program’s throwers, decathletes, jumpers and runners (800 meters and shorter) through a series of tests designed to measure speed, explosiveness and power.
“Filip had highest point total of any male on our team [last fall],” Fetzer said, “and that says a lot for a guy that’s 6-7, 250, to be able to move the way he does and be so explosive.”
Mihaljevic, who has dual citizenship in Croatia and Bosnia, already ranks as the greatest thrower in UVA history. He holds school records in the indoor shot put (68′ 5.75), outdoor shot put (66′ 1.75″) and discus (207′ 0″), an outdoor event. His best indoor shot put is an ACC record, too, and he’s a four-time first-team All-American.
“I want to keep him for another three-and-a-half, four, maybe five or six years,” Fetzer said, laughing. “That would be good.”
At the IAAF World Indoor Championships in March, Mihaljevic earned the bronze medal in the shot put. In August, he’ll represent Croatia in the shot put at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I’m set,” Mihaljevic said, smiling. “I need to start packing.”
For all of Mihaljevic’s success, Fetzer said, the “crazy thing about it is, he’s just learning technique correctly. He’s got a lot more development left in him, and that’s kind of what we want to do in our program.
“Your freshman year should not be your best year. If it is, we’re failing you as an athlete. The one thing about our program is, our guys, if they do what they’re supposed to do and take care of business, they improve significantly over the course of the years. And Filip, he’s going to continue to escalate. He can go down as one of the greatest throwers in the history of college track.”
At the ACC outdoor championships this month in Tallahassee, Fla., Mihaljevic was named the most valuable performer in the men’s field events after winning the shot put and discus. Next up for him are the NCAA East Preliminaries, which start Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla.
Mihaljevic is one of the 26 athletes from UVA — 13 men and 13 women — who will compete at Hodges Stadium and try to qualify for the NCAA outdoor championships, June 8-11 in Eugene, Ore.
At last year’s NCAA meet in Eugene, Mihaljevic placed third in the discus and ninth in the shot put.
“This year I’m going for more,” he said. “I’m not going to be satisfied if I don’t finish in the top three [in each event]. But we have to focus on the regionals first, because sometimes people take it a step too far and they think about Eugene, even though they haven’t qualified yet. We’ll think about Eugene when we get there.”
A busy summer awaits Mihaljevic. In July he’ll compete at the European championships and then the Croatian championships. Then he’ll head to Rio for the Olympics. Kemal Mesic, who coaches Virginia’s throwers, will accompany Mihaljevic to these meets.
At Virginia, Mihaljevic isn’t the only talented thrower. His teammates include junior Jordan Young, sophomore Oghenakpobo Efekoro and freshman Hilmar Jonsson, and that group helped the Cavaliers place third at the ACC outdoor championships.
UVA, led by Mihaljevic and Henry Wynne, who won the mile run, finished in a program-best tie for eighth at the NCAA indoor championships in March.
“It’s joyful to watch the program grow every season,” Mihaljevic said, “just moving from top 50, maybe top 100, to top 20 last year and into the top 10 this year. It’s been really amazing for me to enjoy my performances and the team’s performances as well.”
Mihaljevic, who was born in Bosnia, moved to Croatia when he was 17 and began training at the storied ASK club in Split. He was fluent in English when he came to the United States in 2014, but he speaks much more confidently now than he did then.
He carries a double major in environmental sciences and German. He did not speak that language before he arrived at UVA, but he decided to try German 1010 “and just kept doing it,” Mihaljevic said. “I liked it.”
Croatia and Germany are closely connected, Mihaljevic said, “because a lot of people from Croatia go to Germany to work, so it’s really important to know more languages, especially German, because Germany is the best economic country in Europe.”
“When I was younger, my dad told me to start learning English, and I was like, `Dad, I’m never going to use language in my life,’ ” Mihaljevic recalled. “He was like, `Well, you might,’ and I said, `Well, I don’t think I will.’ Now I’m here living and speaking English every day, so I don’t want to get in that situation again.”
In each of his five semesters at UVA, Mihaljevic said, he’s had a grade-point average of at least 3.0.
“Virginia’s a great academic school,” Fetzer said. “If you’re able to succeed well academically, and then in addition to that succeed well at your conference meet, and then succeed well at the national meet, and then qualify for the Olympic Games, well, words really can’t describe that.”
Mihaljevic, who lives with decathlete Jack Lint, leads by example on the track.
“He works super hard at his craft and what he does,” Fetzer said, “and he continues to push that envelope of getting better, by doing the little things: taking care of himself with the recovery modes, eating the right foods, getting the right number of hours of sleep at night. He does all those things right.”
He wasn’t sure what to expect when he arrived in Charlottesville two-and-a-half years ago, but Mihaljevic has loved his time at UVA.
“Student life here is something that in Europe we never get to experience,” he said. “College life here is way different, especially being a student-athlete at a great academic school in a great athletic program, as we are now. It’s been really a pleasure to be in this program and be around people who are successful. When I got here, we started from zero. And by the time I’m a junior, we’re top 10 in the country.
“The atmosphere in the locker room, it’s amazing. When we travel, we know that we travel as a team, we travel as a family. And it’s been really amazing. Track & field is an individual sport, but here we get that other dimension of being part of a team.”