How to match intensive training with an educational career and when to decide to focus on the lifelong career?
Read the interview with Prof. Tomislav Smoljanović, Bronze Medallist at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in rowing & Medical Scientist, physician and Head of the Orthopaedic Polyclinic Department at the University of Zagreb.
Since the beginning of his sports career, Tomislav Smoljanović has been able to balance his sports and professional career. His biggest sport success is the bronze medal from the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney in rowing (discipline eights). Today he is a renowned Orthopaedic surgeon and physician working as the head of Orthopaedic Polyclinic of University of Zagreb. Here he earned the international interest and approval of the public by issuing a series of warnings about adverse side effects in the application of “Infuse” bone filling proteins.
How did you start training rowing and how did this reflect on your life?
I started rowing in the 7th grade at the age of 13. My parents noted that I wasn’t a good pupil at school with low grades, at that point they decided to move me to another school much further away. I had to work much harder and, in the end, I finished the grade with the best marks. In this way I learned to work independently and learned more responsibility. Due to those poorer grades, I had to pause my rowing training until the second grade of secondary school (age 16).
I also had a strong incentive to be both an athlete and have a professional career thanks to a beautiful girl, who at the time, turned me down as she did not find me attractive enough. After just one year of intensive rowing training, I developed a better physical aspect and today I am lucky to have married that same girl and have wonderful children. The most important lesson in sports is persistence, which, thank goodness, I had enough of. If an athlete avoids major injuries, it is possible to have a good sports career.
My parents’ condition for me doing sports was to be good in school. It happened that I went to school even when I was sick, because I knew if I skipped my lessons it would be hard to catch up and, in this way, I would risk not attending to training sessions. Today my wife and I are using the same approach towards our daughter and son who are both training in two different sports, swimming and rowing. Our son is 14 years old and he will start secondary school near our house so that it will reduce the time spent to and from school and training. Both are aware that, just like my parents did with me, that they can do sports only if they achieve good marks at school.
After I finished the secondary school, I started studying medicine. During my medical studies I was chosen as one of the best medical students, receiving a position at the Department of Orthopaedics under the mentor Professor Marko PEĆINA. This is how I specialised in orthopaedics and acquired my PhD. At the beginning of 2019, I was chosen to be an associate Professor at the University.
The academic and the sports career were always complementing one another. When I was exhausted from learning I could go to practice to relax and take a break from my academic duties. I also always had a safe zone with my academic career in case an injury would happen, I had an area where I could professionally continue my career. That is also why when I am taking care of patients one of the questions is how succesful they are in school. We always support sports, but parallel to that, the academic career needs to be pursued.
Even though in our society there is a tradition to foster dual career, would you comment on the role of the family in this process?
The fundaments of development come from the family, the family creates the conditions and environment for sports and education. In sports which are considered more lucrative people tend to disregard education more easily, having the focus on the potential profits arising from success in that sport.
However, in most sports, even when achieving high results, it is still very difficult to get financial independence. Therefore, it is essential that every athlete has an education, allowing her or him to have a reserve career. I remember leaving the high-end rowing after the World Championships in 2003, because my medical specialisation was about to start. It was not easy for me to decide to stop my sports career as I was very much attached to rowing, but after several sleepless nights I came to the conclusion that a particular part of my life, which I was very proud of, must come to an end, and that I need to move on. I believe I made this decision in a good moment, even though in the next few years I had a feeling that I was missing something in my life, I had a very dynamic job and duties. It was a sort of post-traumatic stress. You get easily used to being in the spotlight of media, to traveling a lot around the world, giving interviews, and everyone following your sport path, cheering for you, following your results and suddenly you don’t have any of this.
Sports teaches us persistence, focus, diligence and success it is hard to find this in the usual civilian life. But once you achieve results in your academic and basic career, you get to feel security and new success. One must bear in mind that the later you commit to the education and the business path, the more difficult it gets to reach success.
Dear Tomislav, thank you very much for your time and availability.
You can read more about his work on the case of “Infuse” here.