Aug. 4, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Summer Olympics are under way In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the University of Virginia has representatives in field hockey, rowing, women’s soccer, men’s tennis, women’s swimming, men’s swimming, and men’s track & field.
The Cavalier contingent includes two highly decorated undergraduates: rising seniors Leah Smith (swimming) and Filip Mihaljevic (track & field). Each is a first-time qualifier for the Olympics.
“I still feel a little weird when people say, `You’re an Olympian,’ ” Smith told reporters early last month. “I’ve just been looking up to Olympians my whole life, so it’s weird to finally be one, or almost be one.”
The swimming competition starts Saturday. Smith, who’s from Pittsburgh, will represent the United States in three events in Rio: the 400-meter freestyle, 800m freestyle and 4x200m freestyle relay.
Mihaljevic, whose hometown is Livno, Bosnia and Herzegovina, will compete in the shot put in Rio, representing Croatia. (He has dual citizenship in Croatia and Bosnia.) The track & field portion of the Olympics starts Aug. 12, and the shot put will be contested Aug. 18.
They don’t know each other well, but Mihaljevic and Smith have met several times at UVA. Mihaljevic expects to see Smith in the Olympic Village and said he hopes to watch her swim in Rio.
The Croatian throwers leave Monday for Rio. The U.S. swimmers arrived there early this week after spending much of last month training together, first in San Antonio and then in Atlanta.
Smith, who has captured four NCAA titles, a UVA record, said the Olympics will be in many ways just another meet for her. She won a gold medal last summer at the FINA world championships, in the 4x200m freestyle relay, and has gained valuable international experience in recent years.
“I’ve done all the necessary steps,” Smith said last week by phone from Atlanta.
Much of the world focuses on swimming only once every four years, during the Olympics, Smith said, “but for swimmers, there’s [an important] meet every single summer. It’s always the equivalent of the Olympics in the swimmers’ minds.
“So this feels just the same. Maybe just a little bit more pressure, just because more people are watching, but I think the other [major] meets combined will give me the experience I need.”
At the U.S. Olympic Trials early this summer in Omaha, Neb., Smith placed second in the 400m free, second in the 800m free and third in the 200m free. Then she returned to UVA before leaving again to start training with the Olympic team.
“It was a little bit overwhelming when I was back in Charlottesville,” Smith said. “There were so many people I wanted to say hi to or who wanted to see me.”
Her cheering section in Rio will include her parents, her three siblings and UVA assistant coach Cory Chitwood.
The biggest name on the U.S. women’s team, of course, is Katie Ledecky, who like Smith swims the 200m, 400m and 800m free.
“It’s been really cool to train with her regularly, and everyone else on the team too,” Smith said, “because when you go back to your club team or your college team, you’re probably one of the [hardest workers] on your team.
“When you put 50 people like that on the same team, it’s an amazing thing, because nobody likes to lose. At first, it was a little bit stressful to always be racing the fastest girls in the world. But this is my third summer training with these girls and I know them all very well and have seen them at meets, so I’ve gotten pretty comfortable.”
Mihaljevic, the greatest thrower in UVA history, holds school records in the indoor shot put, outdoor shot put and discus, an outdoor event. He’s hoping to peak in Rio after an up-and-down stretch this summer.
After winning the shot put at the NCAA outdoor championships in June — Mihaljevic had placed second at the NCAA indoor meet in March — he competed at the European championships.
With a top throw of 18.72 meters — he’s thrown 20.71 for UVA — Mihaljevic failed to qualify for the finals in Amsterdam.
“I felt really good going into NCAAs,” Mihaljevic said last week by phone from Slovenia, where the Croatian throwers were training. “I was peaking for that meet. When I got back to Europe, it was kind of tough. My season is way longer than anyone else’s here.”
More than a week before the European championships, he felt exhaustion setting in, Mihaljevic said, and it took its toll on him during the competition.
“In Amsterdam, it was a bad day, and it was a bad week of training,” he said. “It happens. The body just couldn’t handle it anymore. But I think I’m in better shape now.”
Indeed, Mihaljevic rebounded from his subpar performance in Amsterdam to shine at the recent Croatian championships, placing first in the discus (61.58m) and second in the shot put (19.99m).
Now comes the Olympics, where Mihaljevic’s fellow competitors in the shot put will include Kemal Mesic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who coached Virginia’s throwers in 2015-16.
At the IAAF world indoor championships in March, the 6-7, 255-pound Mihaljevic earned the bronze medal in the shot put. If he throws a personal record in Rio, Mihaljevic said, “I’ll probably be top eight there, or maybe top six.”
Either way, what could well be the first of several Olympic appearances for Mihaljevic represents the realization of a longtime dream.
“Of course,” he said. “It’s the Olympic Games. I couldn’t ask for more.”