April 20, 2004
By Simit Shah
Just about every athlete dreams of making it to the Olympics. For Georgia Tech’s Vesna Stojanovska, that dream is about to come true for a second time.
The freshman swimmer from Macedonia is heading to Athens in August to represent her native country. Four years ago, she swam in the Sydney Olympics as a 15-year-old.
A lot has happened since that inaugural appearance, beginning with a decision to come to the United States. In her hometown of Skopje, Stojanovska’s talent was nearly another casualty of the war that has plagued the region for years.
“It was my dad’s decision,” she said, explaining her move to the United States. “It all happened because I stopped training. They knew that if I stayed, I would stop swimming completely.”
So Stojanovska left her family and headed to Pine Crest High School in south Florida prior to her junior year. She went on to become the state’s champion in the 200-meter freestyle while earning all-America honors.
The phenom could have matriculated at any number of top collegiate swimming programs, but she chose Georgia Tech, which had fielded a full women’s team for just two seasons.
“I wasn’t that worried,” she said about her decision to come to Atlanta. “It’s about the staff and how dedicated they are. I met a lot of the swimmers, and I knew that a lot of good freshmen were coming. A program needs people like me and the other freshmen to show that this program has something to offer.”
In her short time as a Yellow Jacket, the freshman swimmer has created quite a splash, essentially re-writing the school record book. In her debut in late October, she won three races and set two new school records against N.C. State.
That type of success was the norm for the most of the season, as she notched six school records. She capped the season with by earning all-America honors at the NCAA Championships in the 200-meter butterfly.
“I met most of my expectations, except for the ACC Championships where I got sick,” she said.
“I knew she had the potential to be successful,” added head coach Seth Baron. “She’s a very talented young lady. Looking at her throughout the season, there were moments where she was extremely successful, and there were moments where she was falling short of what her talent and abilities were.
“She had an up and down season, but when the time came to compete at the NCAA meet, she stepped up. The coaching staff and the team was very pleased with the way she represented the program.”
Stojanovska’s family has had to admire her success from a distance, following her performances on the Internet. “My mom is worried all the time, even though I’ve been away for a while,” she stated. “I talk to them two or three times a week online, and I try to call them once a week.”
However, Stojanovska will be in neighboring Greece in just a few months and will have a chance to visit her family after the Olympics. She hopes to be celebrating a stronger Olympic performance than her first time, which was a valuable but overwhelming experience.
“I was 15 at the time,” she explained. “I was really scared, but I was also excited. I didn’t pay much attention to the 17,000 people watching me. It was definitely one of the best experiences I could have had. Ever since then, I haven’t been very nervous at swim meets. I think it helped me a lot.”
This time around, Stojanovska hopes that she can improve on her times in Sydney, where she finished 29th and 31st in the 200 and 400-meter freestyle competition.
“There’s a huge difference,” she said, referring to the 2004 Games. “Last time, I was the youngest swimmer at the Olympics. Back then, I didn’t feel as much pressure, because I was young and there just for the experience. Now I feel pressure since I’m older, and I should make the top 20 since that’s my goal. I also don’t feel nervous.”
Stojanovska is not the only Yellow Jacket swimmer preparing for Athens. Two recent graduates who still train with the team are hoping to make the trip as well. Jorge Oliver has qualified for his home country of Puerto Rico, and Shilo Ayalon will attempt to qualify for Israel.
“That’s huge for Georgia Tech to have our first Olympians, plural,” stated Baron, who will likely be in Athens as coach for Macedonia. “I think it brings exposure to our program. It also helps Vesna, whose college career will continue after the Olympics, with experience and her ability to compete on an international level. Competing at those types of events helps the athlete become more confident in their ability.”