I tuned in today to watch the world swimming championship in Rome with only one thing in mind - to see how my countryman, Milorad Cavic from Serbia, would swim his 100m buttefly semifinal race. Little did I expect to hear my national anthem being played for a girl that, completely out of the blue, won the world champion title at 200m breaststroke today.
Her name is Nadja Higl, a 22-year-old girl from Pancevo, a town that's about 30 minutes away from Serbia's capitol city, Belgrade.
Back in the day when I used to practice swimming, I would see her at meets. I don't recall ever being introduced to her, but I'm definitely positive that my sister socialized with her, since they both swam in the same age category.
I remember her father as well. He was a tall man with long hair always tied in a ponytial, and he worked as a swimming referee. He referreed many of the races I swam.
I knew that she qualified for the 200m breaststroke finals with fifth best time in the semis. But, I was absolutely not expecting to see her at the podium at all, much less her getting a gold medal.
The reason why is because of the competition she was going against was absolutely ferocious. In lane 5 was Rebecca Soni, a former world record holder and an Olympic gold medalist from Beijing at 200m breast. In lane 3, Mirna Jukic, an Olympic bronze medalist at 100m breast. And, in lane 4 was Annamay Pierse, a Canadian who broke the world record just a day earlier.
Nadja was in lane 2.
When the race started, I saw Soni break away from the pack, and was well ahead of Pierse's world record set the previous day. I saw Nadja struggle between fourth and fifth place, and I thought that's how it was going to stay for the rest of the race.
But then, something unbelievable happened in the last 50 meters.
At the 150-meter turn, Soni was ahead of the world record, and 2.5 seconds in front of Annamay Pierse. Nadja was in third.
I focused on the upper part of the screen, thinking that Soni was definitely going to be first, and I started cheering for Nadja, because she was fighting for silver. I stood up from my seat, and started yelling, "Come on! Come on! Come on!" in the rhythm that Nadja was taking her breaths.
In the last five meters, I saw that Jukic, Pierse, and Nadja were neck-to-neck, and didn't even pay attention to where Soni was. When Nadja touched the electronics at the finish line, I sighed, "She's second!" I honestly thought Soni had won.
But then, in a millisecond, my thought was corrected by the Italian director. The names that digitally pop out to show the victors to the TV viewers said - 1. Higl, 2. Pierse, 3. Jukic! Soni's name was nowhere to be seen. The only thing I said was, "This is a mistake. This can't be! What just happened?"
The camera zoomed in on Nadja, who herself couldn't believe that she's the new world champion, shyly hiding her face and shaking her head in disbelief. "Oh my God! She won! She WON!!! BRAVO!! BRAVO!!," I started screaming as I applauded this miraculous success.
"What the hell happened? HOW did this happen," I wondered as chills started going down my spine in overwhelming pride and joy that I felt for this young Serbian swimmer.
I laughed in happiness and awe as I was watching the instant replay of the last 15 meters and seeing HOW it all played out. Soni had pushed herself too hard and fell back in the last 10 meters of the race. Jukic-Pierse-Higl chased her down and overtook her literally two meters before the finish. Higl touched first, due to an amazing finish, followed by Pierse and Jukic. Soni was left without a medal - she was fourth.
I was, literally, at a loss of words. It took me a while to realize that Nadja had claimed gold for Serbia. A girl that I knew - a girl that my family knew - was the world champion! And, I was so damn proud!
When the medal ceremony came, I noticed that she was still perplexed by what had happened 15 minutes ago. She seemed very shy and humble while receiving her gold medal. I saluted her by standing in front of the TV, and singing the Serbian national anthem as the director was showing the details of her race, her face, and the rising flag.
And, even before the award ceremony, the person that I originally intended to watch, Milorad Cavic, made the finals by breaking Michael Phelps's world record, which was set several weeks before the championship. However, even that couldn't compare with the unbelievably strong impression Nadja's result left on me! Bravo, champ! Bravo!
It was truly an unforgettable night, and certainly a race I will never forget. A small, seemingly insignificant competitor beat the swimming giants. David slayed the Goliaths. Cinderella had her fairytale come true. Nadja Higl, world champion!