Back Home… For A Bit
Croatia's sports scene has been dotted with headliners in an array of major athletic challenges.
Over the years, they've included such notables as Alpine skiing Olympic medalists Janica and Ivica Kostelic; basketballers Toni Kukoc and the late, great Drazen Petrovic of the New Jersey Nets; tennis stalwarts Nikki Pilic, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivo Karlovic; world champion high jumper Blanca Vlasic, and Olympic gold medal shooter Giovanni Cernogoraz.
Celebrities on the American sports stage of Croatian lineage have included football's Bill Belichick, Brian Billick, Nick Saban, Joe Kuharich and Frankie Sinkwich; baseball's Roger Maris, Johnny Pesky and Mickey Lolich; basketball's Rudy Tomjanovich and George Mikan, and boxing's Fritzie Zivic.
In the world of marathoning, Croatian Franjo Mihalic (running for Yugoslavia) took the silver medal in the epic 1956 Olympic race won by France's Alain Mimoun. He was a world cross country champion and Boston Marathon winner, too.
Well, the list of Croatian notables has a new candidate-in-waiting.
Maybe, just maybe.
Her name is Lisa Stublic and perhaps the waiting period isn't going to be as long as some followers of her sport might imagine. The wait seemed probably years-years away early-early on St. Patrick's Day morning. It had become a whole lot shorter by a little after 9 am.
All this 28-year-old did was run a superb race, battling it out with the very best that New York Road Runners talent scout David Monti could recruit for the eighth annual NYC Half Marathon and finish a strong third, just nine seconds back of winner Caroline Rotich of Kenya (1:09:09) and six seconds behind runner-up Diane Nukuri-Johnson of Burundi (1:09:12).
Stublic crossed the finish line at the lower Manhattan intersection of Water and Wall streets in 1:09:18, an average pace of 5:18, leaving a globally-assembled field of all-star others in her wake. She'd even surged into a short lead around the nine-mile mark and shared it with Rotich for quite a stretch and was ahead of Nukuri-Johnson, who rallied late, most of the way.
And this was amazing stuff for the Crosby High (Waterbury, Conn.) and Columbia University graduate who'd been a good but not great runner in her growing-up years in America but has emerged as a world-class competitor since moving back to Croatia, her father's homeland, five years ago.
Pre-Columbia, her high school bests were a 5:02 mile and a 10:52 two-mile; she'd been the Connecticut state champion in the indoor two-mile.
"When I finished college, people didn't really know who I was," said Stublic. (A lot of people watching the ABC telecast of the Half Marathon didn't know who she was, either. Neither of the network announcers could identify her by name).
"I was OK in college but not, like, spectacular; I was never a standout."
Her Columbia bests — 9:38.69 for the outdoor 3,000 meters; 10:18.67 for the 3,000 steeplechase; 16:31.68 for 5,000; 34:19.98 for 10,000, and 17:10.0 over the 5,000-meter Van Cortlandt Park cross country course — were good but none is a school record.
High placings in the NCAA Cross Country Regionals and some good steeplechases may have been her top performances as a Columbia Lion.
"I was coaching myself for a while (after Columbia) but I found out I wasn't a very good coach."
It's at that point that she made the big decision — move to Croatia, find a coach there, come under the umbrella of the Croatian athletics federation — and "go for it."
She found her coach in Slavko Petrovic and began making major progress.
"Little by little, I started getting better and better."
That led to a regular stipend from the federation and some help from the New York Athletic Club.
"I still thought of myself as a steeplechase runner; I never actually thought I'd become a marathoner, actually, it was kind of funny the way it happened."
Coach Petrovic told her — "you're a horrible steeplechase runner, get it out of your head."
"But I didn't want to listen to him, so I made a compromise, I guess you'd call it.
"This was in 2009 and I ran the steeplechase that whole spring, hoping to run the World Championships that summer (in Berlin).
"Coach said if I ran the standard for the World Championships (9:55), he'd leave me alone." But the best she managed was a 10:09.56.
So terms of the "deal" meant she'd have to start marathon training.
When she got her 26.2-mile best down to 2:30.46 — Croatian record time — that proved her ticket to the 2012 London Olympic Games (where she was one of several Columbia grads competing in assorted sports).
At London, she finished 52nd in 2:34:03.
"It was very exciting of course, and I was full of emotion," she said. "Unfortunately, though, I couldn't run my best. A little after 25k, my lower back cramped up and I had to slow down."
She was still recognized as an elite and that led to her invitation to the NYC Half.
Its early miles were run through the familiar grounds of Central Park (where Columbia often trained) — "that was pretty good for me," she said. "I knew all the hills."
Rotich built an early advantage heading out of the park, heading south, then across 42nd Street, then south along the West Side Highway.
As Rotich kept it in cruise control, Stublic began flooring it and pulled even with the leader.
Rotich would find another gear and would "bring it in" in 1:09:18 and Nukuri-Johnson would edge past, too.
But — on this chilly, windy day not really conducive to great clockings, Stublic got to the line just nine seconds after the winner and her 1:09:18 was a national record for Croatia.
"I couldn't believe it," she said of her solid third place. leaving an array of international stars in her wake. First USA-eligible finisher was Stephanie Rothstein Bruce, ninth in 1:10:53.
"I just wanted to finish top ten." she said. "It's kind of amazing. It has to be one of the best races I've ever won."
She'd flown in from Zagreb just two days before the race, and she was back on a flight to the Croatian capital Sunday night. There was no time for a vacation visit to Connecticut and a reunion with family and friends.
This was a huge confidence-builder, but she knows there's heavy training still to do.
Good things obvious lie just ahead in her running future — one step at a time.