Exclusive interview with Predrag and Lena Mihailovic, bronze medalists from Gwangju World Championships.
It wasn’t easy for Predrag Mihailovic at Gwangju, Korea. Predrag is the head coach of the Australian Women’s Team, and daughter Lena Mihailovic is part of the squad that competed in Gwangju. It wasn’t easy, because it was his first year at the helm and pressure was mounting for the Australian Women’s team to get back to their winning ways.
The tournament ended with Australia earning a bronze medal, which was the first medal for the Australian Women’s Team since 2013. A medal which restored hope within the Australian team with the Olympics right around the corner.
Predrag and Lena, arrived to Serbia straight from Korea. A short but well deserved break in Montenegro, Vallejo and final 2 days in Belgrade. Just enough to catch up with the decorated father and daughter.
Predrag Mihailovic played in Partizan up until 1996, a part of the legendary generation with likes of Dejan Savic, Ikodinovic, Trbojevic, Petrovic…After that he went to Budva, then Italy and Turkey. He defended the colors of teams from Kotor and Nis. In Turkish Galatasaray he finished his playing career and quickly took over the senior team, where he coached for approximately 7 years, taking the Turkish title on each occasion. In Serbia, he was an assistant coach to famous Petar Kovacevic, for 1994 born Serbian National team.
Then a huge step followed, when in September 2011, they moved to Australia:
“It wasn’t exactly planned. We were having a great time in Istanbul, but when my kids started talking about going to University, we decided to change our environment, once again”
In Australia, he started working with the Cronulla Sharks and shortly after with the Institute of Sport. He was also working with younger national selections in Australia. In October last year, he became the head coach of the Australian Women water polo team:
“I had full support from the Institute, with my transition to the head coach position. I had a great time there and I’m grateful for their support.”
I heard there were some issues?:
Not wanting to talk too much about this, Predrag briefly explained
“There were few administrative issues, but my coaching staff and me, managed to defend the ideology in which the coach and his staff are the the ones that should ultimately select the team. That is natural and logical way. The hard earned Bronze is a result of that our hard work, giving us much needed tail wind. It is the first medal since 2013. It means a lot to all of us here.”
Australia celebrated the women, which was a better result than their male counterparts, yet:
“As far as I know the whole event was very poorly followed by media. The men finished 6th, with that controversial decision in the dying seconds of the game against Hungary. We came with the Bronze, yet it also seemed very little media attention was given to that. Truth be told, the moment I came to Serbia I tried switching off from it all“.
Taking over the team 8 months before the Olympic Games was an obvious risk. However one day in October, Mihailovic decided to take the job:
“At that time, I was asked to lay strong foundations on which we were to work to create a strong and sustainable future for Australian Women’s Water Polo. There was no imperative, although in my report to the board I said my aim on the world championship is a medal or at least to reach the semi finals. Now it’s time to move forward , Tokyo is around the corner.”
At the Olympics, 10 teams, the competition is fierce:
“USA is in a class of their own. From non European countries, China is strong, Canada is investing more and more, Japan already proved that they will not be an easy target, especially not in Tokyo, and then there is us, with the same ambitions as always, to win the gold medal. From Europe you have Italy, Russia, Spain, Greece, Netherlands …It will be extraordinarily competitive water polo, especially with the latest rule change which allows only 11 players to be selected in the team.”
Father- Daughter Relationship
“There will always be comments, but I try to separate our relationship as father-daughter and coach-player as much as possible. When around the pool all I ask from Lena is to focus on water polo.”
“He was my coach at Institute, so most of the players knew how the relationship worked. Truth be told, I have a lot of support from the girls in my team, which helps me a lot. I can always chat to them about things which I could never do with a coach.”
“Lena can be in a bit of a tough situation, because consciously or unconsciously, I put more distance between her and me than I do with the other players. However, no matter what we do, people will always have their own opinion.”
Lena about the Bronze
Lena has already won a gold medal at the World University Games in 2015. While she was at Arizona State University, her name was embroidered in gold on the university wall, joining the hall of fame for her outstanding academic and water polo achievements. Now, Bronze at World Champs, her highest career achievement:
“I still can not believe what happened. Last year the atmosphere surrounding the team was very unpleasant, it was messy. To me, the most important thing we have achieved in a short time is to get back that team spirit. We were all ready to give our best for each other and I’m certain that this is what has brought us the much needed medal.
As a player and as a coach, your dad was known for his calmness:
“(Laughs) He was actually surprisingly calm. He managed to take the stress off our shoulders, to calm us down and put us in the right direction when it mattered most. He seemed relaxed which took a lot of pressure off the girls”.
You are a water polo family, how are things at home ?
“At home, we don’t speak about water polo.“
About the author:
Article was written by prominent Serbian sports Journalist Dejan Stevovic for the one of the biggest Sports Newspapers of Serbia “Sportski Zurnal”.
Article was originally published in Serbian on 27th of August 2019.
We thank Dejan for allowing us to translate and share his story.