By Miquel Jacobs
(Originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly.)
Those aren’t exactly the words you expect to hear from a 24-year-old NCAA champion who also happens to be the first person from Slovenia to win a medal in swimming at the Olympic Games. More likely, you might expect something along the lines of “competing is a privilege” or “representing your country is a privilege.” Yet those first four words are something that Sara Isakovic has lived by her entire life.
Isakovic grew up as a world traveler, learning four languages while living in Indonesia, Malaysia, Dubai and Slovenia. As a child, she didn’t fully comprehend that the reason her family moved around so much was a result of the Yugoslav wars that prevented her Serbian father from entering her mother’s home country of Slovenia due to the lack of a passport. All that mattered to the young girl was swimming in the hotel pools and the vast seas that make up the Indian Ocean while her pilot father shuttled her brother, mother and herself across Europe and Asia.
Traveling the world also had other effects, as she saw and learned things that would alter her outlook on life.
“As a little kid, it struck me to see the poverty in some countries and how the children were in the streets,” Isakovic said. “It was always built in me to not take school for granted and that you get to learn (compared to what others had the opportunity to do). It was also an influence from my parents, but to be in those environments and able to see it for myself as a little girl, I always thought that I am so lucky that I get to go to school to learn.”
The family eventually left Dubai after five years and returned to Slovenia where Isakovic could have an actual swimming coach and team after learning under her mother. Despite her great successes in the pool, she knew from the start that her endgame was to use the sport as an opportunity to come to the United States and continue her education. A pair of friends on the California swim team made Berkeley the runaway choice and sole option as a place of higher learning.
“I decided to come to the U.S. because this is the only place in the world where you can combine athletics and academics,” said Isakovic, who won an Olympic silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle in 2008 and an NCAA title in the 100-yard butterfly in 2012. “It doesn’t exist in Europe. It doesn’t exist anywhere else with a campus environment where you swim here, live here and go to school here. In Slovenia, you either decide to be a professional athlete or a student. A lot of very good athletes across this globe never finish school. It breaks my heart because I feel like as an athlete, we’re capable people in all fields.
“That whole concept just shaped me into really believing that education is the biggest privilege,” Isakovic continued. “No one can take your education away from you. I know no one can ever take my swimming successes away from me, but it’s not ever-lasting. It’s ‘I’ve done what I’ve done,’ but the other 60 or 70 years in my life I want to do something that I’m also really passionate about.”
Isakovic credits the U.S. system not only for giving athletes the opportunity to study and compete concurrently, but also for the passion that professors display to students that encourages the learning process and makes it “easier” than the authoritarian type of learning that exists in Europe.
“The European stereotype is that school in the States is ‘easier,’” Isakovic said, “but it’s ‘easier’ because we are the luckiest students in the world to have such awesome relationships with professors who are approachable and willing to help. In Europe, students don’t enjoy the process of learning as much or engage in the material because there is no relationship between professors and students.”
That relationship factor, as well as the ability to take classes and learn what it is that interests you – as opposed to the European method of declaring an area of study right out of high school – is something that has allowed Isakovic to discover her thirst for psychology. As a freshman at Cal, Isakovic took the breadth of her core requirements while also signing up for and falling in love with psychology. She credits professor Kaiping Peng with jumpstarting her interest in the field, and further work in Dr. Silvia Bunge’s neuropsychology class, “The Developing Brain,” in the fall 2012 semester solidified her career goal of discovering more about the intricate workings of the human brain as it relates to successful athletes.
Isakovic regularly attended Bunge’s office hours and spoke of obtaining research experience before going to graduate school, a conversation that led to joining Bunge’s research lab beginning with the January 2013 semester.
Another stroke of luck came during a holiday break when she got in contact with accomplished neuroscientist Justin Feinstein, who loved Isakovic’s idea of finding out what makes some athletes resilient while others crash in the face of adversity. Feinstein put her in touch with Dr. Martin Paulus at UC San Diego, whose “Opti-Brain” research is in the process of conducting studies on elite performances in stressful situations with an emphasis on Olympic athletes, U.S. Navy SEALS and U.S. Marines. The goal is to discover whether there is something in the brain that allows some people to push to extreme limits, a subject that hit close to home with Isakovic, who herself has competed at the highest levels.
“It always fascinated me that no matter what rank you are in the world, there is always a point where some people just drop off and they aren’t able to cope with the stress and pressure at all,” Isakovic said. “It’s all mental, and I’m fascinated about this connection of mind and body. A single thought of doubt could choke up and freeze your body. Some athletes dedicate their whole life to their sport, but one tiny mental breakdown or doubt, even something subconsciously from previous experiences, doesn’t allow you to perform. I want to solve that. It is my dream of trying.”
Isakovic’s primary goal is to find out whether there is an area of the brain that helps define this resilience so that it can be trained, much like the resilience training that Cal swimmers endure under head coach Teri McKeever. Isakovic credits the success of the program on this brand of training at the outdoor Spieker Aquatics Complex compared to the controlled, indoor pools that most athletes in the country use.
Isakovic’s dedication to athletic and academic excellence has led to her being honored with an Oscar Geballe Postgraduate Scholarship, an award given to three seniors at Cal each year that recognizes devotion to Cal and the belief in the value of combining scholarship and intercollegiate athletic competition.
After studying under Dr. Paulus in La Jolla and hopefully helping to uncover how the brain works in elite performers, Isakovic will use the Geballe Scholarship to pursue clinical psychology with a focus on neuropsychology. And as she’s done her entire life, she will take every advantage of the privilege that is education.
“I’m beyond grateful for my scholarship at Cal,” Isakovic said. “For me, that is the biggest reward through swimming that I could have possibly imagined. I wouldn’t change my scholarship education at Cal for 50 gold medals. I tell that to everybody. Without coming to Berkeley, none of this would have happened.”