Blanka Vlašić took part on the event “Sport: much more than entertainment” Organised by the University of Rome and the Pontifical Council of the Laity, Vatican State. During the event, Alessandro Campagna, Vincenzo Cantatore, Ilario di Buò, Alessia Lucchini, Daniele Masala, Annalisa Minetti, Aldo Montano, Luca Pancalli, Abdon Pamich, Lorenzo Porzio, Santo Rullo, Nikolaus von Rupp, Vincenzo Mangiacapre, Massimo Tammaro and Blanka Vlašić told about successes, challenges to inspire the international community.
Here is Blanka’s speech in Rome:
“I grew up within a sporting family. Mum and dad were both keen on sport in their youth, and they actually met at university where they graduated in Physical Education. So, I can safely say that my ‘career path’ was ‘roughly’ defined even while I was still in the womb.
My dad noticed my exceptional coordination skills, even before I took my first steps. In fact, I could crawl with remarkable speed. Very quickly our common leisure activities were reduced to spending time playing various sports and doing exercises, usually in the playground outside school, where through playing I managed to fine-tune my coordination movements, learning the basic gymnastic elements and how to catch and throw balls. As I said – through playing, but also taking on the challenge. My dad knew how to motivate me and help me maintain my concentration compared to kids my age of a few years who could barely hold their focus for longer than half an hour. Since he himself was an athlete, he simply knew all the characteristics needed to become a professional.
These consist of far more than just physical abilities. The psychological effort of top athletes is perhaps more difficult to bear than the physical strains. Only a fine-tuned synchronized body, mind and spirit together can achieve a positive outcome. Dad noticed that I was not content with being just a participant in the game. Indeed, I always strived to win. The competitive spirit often led to testing friendships from an early age, as nobody wanted to play with the one that turned every game into a competition.
It’s certainly not a quality you need to hold onto, but it is something that, if directed in the right way is indeed, a desirable characteristic to have as a potential athlete. Equally, I responded very well to the challenges I was faced with. When I would be feeling low, I’d always rise to the challenge as soon as I heard that an ice-cream was an incentive or when Dad would pretend to doubt one of my goals, I’d usually break records just out of spite.
Now when I look back, I see how he carefully and thoughtfully guided me along, and on some occasions not even aware of how things were part of the plan. Dad listenedto what I wanted, but he wasn’t ready to take a risk on every one of my decisions, because as a child you cannot always clearly distinguish between what is best for you. There is a very fine line that parents must discover to guide their child in the right direction. At the same time it is important to give their child the freedom to decide, as there was a great rebellion within me against everything my father would impose. The best example of this is the moment when we had to decide whether the high jump would be something that I could seriously pursue.
I remember my dad would strongly focus on every ‘for’ and ‘against’, yet discreetly leaned towards volleyball which is a team sport giving me a higher chance of success since athletics was not at all popular in Croatia at the time, not to mention hardly non-existent training conditions. There were two reasons as to why I chose the high jump. The first was simple. I was the best among all my peers, and I would say even among the older children and the second, because it wasn’t the obvious first choice of my father. Later he admitted that he used ‘reverse psychology’, but by then it didn’t matter. I knew deep down that we had made the right decision.
You see, choosing sport as a vocation is not an easy path since you need to start from a very early age. Athletes must adapt to their chosen discipline with their whole being, physically and psychologically. Furthermore, this is not a process of four (or sometimes more) years of study. It’s a process of adaptation that for me is still going on. If I had to make the choice alone, I might have come to the same decision, but would have been too late.
Those who have not shared my daily passion and listened to my every breath, would certainly have missed my hidden ambitions and desires. But Dad was always there. There when I got up and when I went to sleep. He knew them all and I shared them with him. This mutual trust we’ve developed is perhaps the most complex matured relationship that I will ever encounter in my life. If I started talking about all the troubles that he took on board, especially during my adolescence, it would continue until the evening. Yes, often I would feel lost, but my dad knew how to reconcile the role of a parent and a coach at crucial moments.
Okay – if I keep talking about my dad, Mum might feel a little neglected, yet she plays an extremely significant role in this story. In fact, she was my refuge. I was always able to entrust her with all my secrets and anxieties. She would always understand. But her understanding would never distract me from my path. In fact, since she herself lived for sport, she knew how to comfort me yet without freeing me of my responsibility.
I managed to get into the habit of daily training very early on, which was the part of the ‘game’ that I didn’t always enjoy. That’s why Mum and Dad often took on the roles of ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’, but always in agreement (now I clearly see it) as there was never a situation when they didn’t mutually consult each other. Back then, it wasn’t the time for me to realize how synchronized this system actually was. As I understand it today, I appreciate it immensely.
When I experienced my first victories, the dilemma between training or going to a children’s birthday party on Saturday afternoon at five quickly disappeared. I then became fully aware of what I wanted.I loved taking part in every competition and it felt great to know I was better than the others. This led me forward and motivated me enough to ‘bite’ even stronger. Of course, the more I climbed, the steeper the challenge became. Sport absorbed even more and more sacrifices which I wasn’t aware of at the start. But knowing these sacrifices came at a time when I could accept them – although not without suffering.
By no means without suffering! I would say that my most difficult phase of development from being an amateur to professional athlete was when I left home at the age of 19 and realized everything I do and don’t do is to my own disadvantage or my own benefit. It took me three years to conquer my self-discipline and begin to live sport 24/7. In fact, there are no working hours from 9 to 5. Either you live sport permanently or you have no chance of survival. I’ll tell you a trivial example – I’d never run after a bus as I hadn’t been warmed-up (although I could probably catch it), as it could accidentally strain a muscle.
It’s simply a way of thinking, an automatic mindset geared towards a single goal – to be the best in the world. That’s how I was raised. Even before I knew how to divide two-digit numbers, Dad had told me that one day I would be world champion – proudly sharing his prediction beyond our four walls. Many thought he was simply fantasizing, but for me this eventually became something I was destined to do.
Over time our family expanded. I have three brothers, the youngest of whom is 17 years old. Apart from Luka, we’ve all taken up a passion for sport. Marin, after a short basketball career followed in my father’s footsteps and became an athletics coach, while Nikola is already a first-team player for Split’s best football club Hajduk. Luka is studying physiotherapy. It’s a great blessing to have grown up within such a large family. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see and appreciate everything that Mum and Dad did for us making sure we wouldn’t lack anything. But I have to admit that our bond had gained a certain deeper dimension since we let the Lord become part of our daily lives…
My brothers and I have received all the sacraments, but it was only recently that Mum and Dad were married in the church. Our faith was more of a tradition, and after our confirmation it was not even that.Justlike any family, we’ve been through good and bad periods, somehow always managing to keep our heads above the surface. But without solid support in Our Lord, we would often make judgmentfrom our own perspective, which often led us to various disputes and even alienation. One situation was following injuries and an ankle operation, I found it extremely tough on the road to recovery and the return to jumping.
Away from the life that I was used to, I increasingly began to shy away socially. I somehow felt defeated in every way and I had no desire to socialize with family and friends. In fact, I pushed them all away and would rather stay in my apartment, out of sight. I didn’t know how to deal with the situation where I wasn’t Blanka – the girl who was jumping and winning. I lost my identity, and suddenly felt I was in an empty waiting room just waiting for somebody to call out my name so I could become once more, who I used to be. I didn’t really know what kind of call to expect, but it was one that changes life from within and has nothing to do with what you do by profession, but rather who we are by birth.
At the time I was in some kind of dispute with my oldest brother Marin. We weren’t as close as we were before and I didn’t know what was going on in his life. I knew that he, too, after an ankle operation (as a consequence of his basketball days) had major health problems, but I wasn’t aware that he had started to attend Mass. I was quite astonished when one day he approached me and said he’s praying for me. I was shocked as this wasn’t the Marin I knew.
He started to talk to me about God, conversion and the way in which Jesus reaches out to us. At first I put a large wall around myself, but the Holy Spirit was at work, as all walls eventually fall down like a tower of cards. I’ll never forget that special moment of grace. Tears started to fall by themselves and suddenly everything became crystal clear. It was as if I had been brought up in faith my whole life and everything I never thought about, I suddenly knew. Jesus took place in my soul where he had always meant to be, like a missing piece of a puzzle. That night I fell asleep calm and I remember I had a thought: whatever would happen in the future, should I jump again or not, the Lord is with me and I have nothing to fear.
I started to regularly go to Mass, confession and taking communion. It was such an overwhelming wave that it affected my entire family. Thanks to the grace received by Marin, and then me, my parents began to contemplate a church wedding, which happened only a few months later. Knowing my dad who had never stepped foot inside a church except when he simply had to (for weddings and funerals), it was a miracle to see him excited as a little kid, after receiving the sacrament of communion and confirmation, before God, exchanging vows with my mum. It will forever be the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever experienced. If you had told me three years ago, that one day all the members of my family would attend Mass and take communion, I’d say you were kidding. Yet the Lord can make everything possible.
We’re not strong enough to simply rely on ourselves, even if the world today promotes such thinking, proclaiming everything else as a weakness. We have been taught to hide our flaws behind a mask of ‘strength and self-confidence’, which is just a smokescreen that disappears at the first sign of trouble. Only when we turn and look to Jesus can we find the meaning of the cross, we consistently seem to run away from. As an athlete who is in the public spotlight, life is easier and more complete knowing God’s mercy and infinite love. A feeling, in fact of coming home.
I’m sad when I realize how the importance of family is in decline. I’m sad because I know how wonderful it is to be surrounded by people who love and support you as a family, which is the culmination of love among people. We’ve started to take the responsibility of parenthood too lightly, which is the starting point for everything else. We deprive our children from the very beginning, not giving them a chance…..
I’m aware of the blessing I’ve been given in the form of my parents. It’s true, they are not perfect, as none of us are, but they are willing to be better. That’s exactly what God wants from us. Our willingness and our YES. Jesus doesn’t solve life’s troubles – rather he teaches us how to deal with them. My testimony would be incomplete if I only spoke of the way in which the Vlašić family nurtured a world champion. It’s incomplete because to be number one in the world is no guarantee of final success of which we all aspire. Only a family living in communion with God is complete and one that has raised a world”