Croatian contender: Filip Mihaljevic looking to be a big shot

Filip Mihaljevic
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Filip Mihaljevic in action at the Belgrade 2017 European Athletics Indoor Championships

Competition to be Europe’s number one shot putter is currently very fierce. Last year, the Polish pair of Michal Haratyk and Konrad Bukowiecki as well as Luxembourg’s Bob Bertemes led the way and the trio all threw 22 metres or more.

However, Croatia’s Filip Mihaljevic was not too far behind with a national record 21.84m and his indoor exploits have elevated him into medal consideration for the Paris 2020 European Athletics Championships.

At the World Athletics Indoor Tour finale in Madrid last Friday, he produced a terrific heave of 21.74m, just 10cm down on his outdoor national record, in the last round to not only add 22cm to his own indoor record but also move from third to first and clinch the World Athletics Indoor Tour title as well as the $20,000 winner-take-all first prize.

“I had really good indoor season and this just tops it,” reflected a smiling Mihaljevic in the wake of his win in the Spanish capital.

“I started well (with his previous national record of 21.52m at the World Athletics Indoor Tour meeting in Dusseldorf on 4 February. I opened a little late because the world champs in Doha were late last year.

“I was a little surprised how well I did in that first meet in Dusseldorf but everything has kept rolling after that. Here (in Madrid), it took me a little while to fathom it out but I got it together in the last round.”

Doha was a disappointment for Mihaljevic – he finished 11th with 20.48m after reaching 21.00m – coming as it did after finishing third for Team Europe at The Match less than a month before with 21.60m.

However, he got back into training with new coach Marko Macelic – after his previous coach Edis Elkasevic decided at the end of last season to concentrate solely on assisting his partner and multiple global discus champion Sandra Perkovic – with motivation to bounce back with aplomb and so it has proved.

“I trained firstly in Split and then in Belgrade. It was always my goal to win the Tour but the biggest thing was that I came into the indoor season heathy” added Mihaljevic, who at 2.01m in his socks stands taller than almost every other Goliath of the shot put circle.

In between Dusseldorf and Madrid, he had an outing in Torun, Poland n 8 February where he finished third in 21.42m. His short indoor season will conclude at the European Athletics Indoor Permit Meeting in Belgrade on Thursday (27)

Further looking back on his Madrid competition, Mihaljevic said: “I knew I was in good shape from the practice throws. I had one put and I thought it was about 20 metres, but I looked at my coach and he was going ‘It’s 21 (metres),” reflected Mihaljevic. “However, coming here I was thinking I might be in shape to throw 21.30 to 21.40 so this (winning) throw comes as a big surprise.”

Mihaljevic, still only 25, was an American collegiate star while at the University of Virginia, having been recruited after winning the 2013 European U20 silver medal.

He progressed quickly to take the 2015 European U23 crown.and won the prestigious NCAA title in the shot put in 2016 and 2017, adding the discus for good measure in his last year. Not bad for a student-athlete who was also studying for a degree in German and environmental sciences while regularly rewriting his university and conference record books.

However, by his own admission, his transition to the professional ranks was not a smooth one.

“I couldn’t have asked for more when I was in Virginia, but it took me a year or two to adjust to the professional world, 2018 was a year of stagnation,” he added.

Having graduated in December 2017, his big competitions the following year were a disaster despite him improving her personal best to 21.33m early in the season. He failed to make the final of the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships and only finished a modest sixth at the Mediterranean Games, a competition where he could have and should have been on the podium.

“But I think I’ve got it right now and sometimes you learn from bad things that happen. I think I did.”

Evidence from the 2020 indoor season, his first competitions under cover since 2017, suggest he’s right on both counts.

If the World Athletics Indoor Championships had been held this year, instead of being cancelled due to concerns about the coronavirus, Mihaljevic could have been in contention to add to the surprise bronze at the same championships he won in 2016.

“I’m disappointed that they (the world indoor championships) were cancelled. I had hoped they would have been moved to another country but there is nothing I can do about it.”

Now he has set his sights on the two big events of the summer, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and Paris 2020 European Athletics Championships.

No Croatian man has won an Olympic athletics medal since the country became independent in 1991, although Croatian-born athletes Ivan Gubijan and Franjo Mihalic won silver medals in the vest of former Yugoslavia – in the 1928 hammer and 1956 marathon respectively – the country’s only athletics medals prior to its break up.

Instead the Croatian national anthem has been heard in the athletics arena to celebrate the successes of Perkovic and javelin thrower Sara Kolak with Blanka Vlasic also getting medals in 2008 and 2016.

“I’m very motivated about the Olympics, I know my history and know no Croatian man has been on the podium for athletics in recent times (since independence).”

Paris offers a similar potential prize. Only 1500m runner Branko Zorko and long jumper Sinisa Ergotic have won continental medals outdoors in the last 30 years, bronze in 1994 and silver in 2002 respectively, but no one has taken a European Athletics Championships gold medal wearing the blue and red vest of Croatia.

Assuming he is healthy when the big competitions come around in six months’ time, Mihaljevic will be a contender to make some Croatian athletics history.