It was a very important game in Herceg Novi. They were our direct rivals for the spot in the Final 4 tournament of the Adriatic League. Jug, Primorje and Mladost were going to get those first 3 spots. This was some 6-7 years ago when Primorje was Primorje. There were other teams in the mix for that fourth spot, but as the season progressed, it was clear that it was up to Mornar Split and Jadran Herceg Novi to decide who will take that last spot in the Final 4 bracket. They were our last, or second to last game in the first round of the season. We were playing them in Herceg Novi. I was the starting goalkeeper for Mornar.
This was my second year at Mornar where I came to play from my water polo alma mater POŠK. In that first year at Mornar I started as a third goalie and inside of few months managed to take that number one spot and held it till the season ended. The next year we had few player changes and a change of coaches. Joško Kreković decided that after some 6-7 seasons as a coach for Mornars first team he will focus himself a bit more on Mornars youth program. Our new coach was Zdeslav Vrdoljak. You might know him. The captain for the Croatia National Water Polo team in 2007 Melbourne. The captain of the world champions. Silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics. Probably some Champions League Final 4’s or Final 6’s. I am not sure. Anyways, a CV to impress even someone like Andrija Prlainovic haha. After he stopped with his active playing Zdeslav came back as a youth coach and as a coordinator for the entire youth program of his home club of Mornar Split. To his credit, in the next few years he was able to transform Mornars youth program to the most successful youth program in Croatia. Not Zdeslav alone of course. There were other trainers present. Ozren Ogi Mihaljević, Vili Mladinić, Danijel Burić, Marin Kliškinjić, Zvone Ivanko and the eternal gentleman Mr. Damir Radic.
The reason why I am telling you this is that because when Zdeslav became my coach at Mornar, most of our players were the players he had trained from their early childhood. These 17, 18 and 19 year old kids who were just knocking on the doors of serious water polo were „his players“. This was Zdeslavs first year as a senior coach and he wanted to continue the work he started with his boys. He also wanted to set the foundations for what he wanted to achieve in the following years. Now you can already see how I might have problems fitting that picture. I was still the starting goalkeeper, but you could feel it. I’ve been around enough coaches to know how to read his vibes, but he inherited me from the last season so he had to deal with me this season haha. He didn’t have a problem with me, but I was not a big name goalkeeper who would attract any media attention, at least not at that time haha. I was also not some proven goalkeeper, at least not at that time. Plus being a loud-mouth who liked to question everybody’s authority didn’t quite help my cause haha. Zdeslav and me still have a relationship to this day. We are good. We are not best buddies, but we don’t have anything against each other. Lets hope we stay good after this article I am about to write haha. JK. The way I see it now, the same way I had bad luck of not fitting his picture, he also had bad luck of having to deal with me. He had the right for his opinions, ideas and visions, and I had the right to train as hard as I can. And trained hard I did. Wednesdays were traditionally an easy day. Easy day meaning you would only have to do one training on this day. Usually in the morning, but if for some reason you couldn’t make it, you would have to come in the evening. There were many-a-times when I would do the morning training and still come in the evening and train on my own. The look that Zdeslav had every wednesday evening when he saw me in the gym, or on the pool, was priceless to me haha. In one way he was glad that his goalkeeper is training so hard, but in another way it didn’t fit his picture and his plans. So in his look, I could see this inner fight. As the season progressed I was also progressing and improving. This was my first season as a starting goalkeeper with a club that played somewhat of a role in Croatian Water Polo. I was 24 years old. So, naturally I was hella motivated.
Over the course of the season we won what we had to win, and we lost what we thought we would lose anyways. And then came Jadran from Herceg Novi. We were holding 4th and 5th position. We came to the swimming pool and as we were warming ourselves I already felt the shortness of breath. I thought to myself that maybe that day I had smoked one to many cigarettes and simply continued to do my drills. Didn’t gave it any more significance. The game starts. I was very nervous. First quarter ends with 3:3. I don’t remember the game that much. Just flashes, but I know that as the quarter ended I felt like I didn’t do enough. I felt like its a matter of time before Zdeslav puts me on the bench. We gathered around him for the break and I noticed how I couldn’t breathe. I started to breath harder and deeper, but I still felt out of breath. I took my cap off and tried to take an even deeper breath, but I just couldn’t. Zdeslav was saying something and I was trying to look like I am paying attention to him, but in reality I was still fighting for my breath. I tried getting out of the water, thinking that might somehow help. My heart started to beat very fast. Still out of breath and by now starting to panic a bit. Let me remind you that this was a very important game and that the stands were full, and I mean full. I am trying to keep my composure, but at some point I just couldn’t. By now I couldn’t breathe for more then 30 seconds. My heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest. Felt like suffocating and heart attack at the same time. I don’t remember exactly what I said to my team, but it was something like „I can’t breath“ and stormed across the swimming pool to find an emergency exit. Man. I still block that memory from my head, because I don’t know how to feel about all that. I stormed out with something, that I now know was a panic-attack, in front of all those people. Looking back you can’t help yourself but feel a bit embarrassed about the whole situation. I remember being confused, scared, my heart drumming its way out of my chest, darkness around my eye sight and no fuckin idea what is going on with me. Somehow, probably with someones help, I got outside. Its February, or January night, and I am in this cold weather completely wet, sitting on some stairs, with barely any eye sight, scared out of my fuckin mind thinking I will die from a heart attack any second now. Any second now. Any second now. Some people were around me. Somebody put a robe over me. I wasn’t calming down. The next thing I remember was being in some room, laying on my back on a bench with a doctor standing over me checking my heart rate and blood pressure. I remember that I couldn’t stand up or talk. Partially blind the entire time. With my heart wanting to jump out of my chest. And all I wanted was to make this whole thing stop, so that I could go back to the game. I even asked the doctor who was around me to let me play the game. He laughed. To make stuff even worse for me, we had an ambulance come and pick me up. At that point I realized that I am not going back to play the game. Like its not embarrassing enough that I had to storm out, now I have to be transported to the hospital wearing nothing but a fucking robe and my Turbos. They transported me in one of those hospital chairs with wheels on them. I remember not having enough strength to keep myself upwards in that chair. In the ER van I almost fainted again. I was laid on some bed at ER station and given something to clam me down. The entire time in the ER van and at the hospital our assistant coach Ozren „Ogi“ Mihaljević was with me. Looking back it sounds funny, but if I had to be in that van and that hospital on my own… I don’t know how would I have dealt with it. We talked a bit and talking with him helped me calm down a lot. The thing they gave me to calm down probably also helped. Later we found out that we lost the game. I know it is Ozrens job to take care of his players, but winning one of the most important games of the season was also important. That day we lost, but Ozren has more then done his job. His honesty helped me a lot in that moment. He willingly stepped out of the comfort zone that his job as an assistant coach entitles him and was there for his player, not only as a coach but as another human being. Good job Coach. That day you won. At least in my eyes. Once I was able to regain my senses I was told what was wrong with me. To tell you the truth I didn’t get it. What do you mean overload? I mean, I do get it, but the way it makes you feel is like you can’t handle something. Makes you feel like you are not enough. I would be able to grasp and fully understand if I have had a panic attack in the finals of the Champions League. I am willing to admit that playing a Champions League final is an overload for me, but playing for the 4th place in the bracket for the Adriatic Leagues Final 4 tournament is not something where I would already like to overload myself. I mean, if that’s an overload, then how will I be able to deal with the real stuff in life. I mean it is still only a water polo game. I don’t know how long was I in that hospital. Time didn’t exist for a while. Later I found out that Ogi took my cloths with us to the ER van. Once I got myself dressed, we were driven to a restaurant where our team had their traditional post-game meal. For the next two months I played with these panic-attacks without anybody from my team knowing anything about it…