‑ Interview by Jake Bambrough
One of the most talented handball players of her generation, Mirjana Djurica Vermezovic is an Olympic champion and runner-up with the Yugoslavian national team; as well as a part of a wildly successful club side at Radnicki Belgrade, where she won the European Champions League and Cup Winners’ Cup, not to mention a multitude of Yugoslavian league and cup titles. What is most remarkable about her achievements is that she played most of her career while hampered by serious ligament injuries in both knees, for which she was never properly treated. Here she explains how she was able to perform to such a high level despite this significant impairment.
How tough is life as a top-level handball player?
It isn’t so tough if you enjoy it. Being a professional athlete is something you learn to do, just like anything else.
When did you first suffer a knee injury?
I first injured my left knee in 1981 after the Olympic Games in Moscow. I remember it very well, even after all these years, I was changing direction while running, I heard a ‘pop’ and I had a feeling that my knee was unstable.
What happened then?
This was before we had MRI, so I went to see a doctor and he did some diagnostic tests and told me I had a tear in the medial meniscus, so I underwent meniscus surgery. However, nobody mentioned anything about an ACL injury, it wasn’t diagnosed.
How was your knee after the operation, did you have any feelings of instability?
Yes, very frequently. I completed all the rehabilitation, but my knee still felt unstable.
But you continued playing for you club side and national team during this time, then in 1982 you injured your right knee, can you tell us about that injury?
That injury occurred as I landed after jumping. It was towards the end of the match, but I was in good shape. It felt very similar to the injury I had suffered in my left knee.
What kind of treatment did you have?
I was told I had a medial ligament tear and I had to wear a cast for 1 month.
And after that you returned to play?
Yes, I started playing again and shortly after I went to the World Championship in Hungary with the Yugoslavian national team, where I won a bronze medal.
How did you manage playing with instability in both knees? Did you change your technique or style of play, what were you coping mechanisms?
I think I just realised I had to use my head more than my legs.
You were selected to represent the Yugoslavian national team at Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984, even though at this point you were ACL-deficient in both knees?
Yes, we became Olympic champions. I played every game and scored 18 goals.
Did you have pain after playing, especially at tournaments with the national team, where you would play several games in a short space of time, how did recover?
Yes, sometimes it was painful, but I just used ice, that’s all.
After the 1984 Olympics, you were one seen as one of the best players in the world, you had just won Olympic gold, what was your opinion at that stage about your knee injuries?
I adapted to that handicap and that’s just how it was. At club level, I won the European Champions League in 1984 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1986 with Radnicki Belgrade. By that period, I had an almost constant feeling of instability in my knee. During games, I would actually push it back into position with my hand and continue to play.
And then you were called up to the national team for the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988?
Yes, but a few weeks before the games I experienced some locking in my right knee, it felt like something was blocking it. It was another meniscal problem and I had a medial menisectomy, however my ACL wasn’t reconstructed due to the proximity to the Olympic Games and the time it would have taken to recover, which would have been several months. We finished fourth at the Olympics.
And how long did you continue to play for after that?
I stopped playing in 1989 when I was pregnant with my first child. Afterwards I returned and carried on playing professionally until 1992.
How are your knees today?
I have taken advice from the doctor I saw in 1988, who advised me to do regular quadriceps strengthening exercises, to avoid gaining too much weight, and to use anti-inflammatories and I don’t have too many problems with my knees now. I struggle a bit with bending or squatting down. But I continued playing handball with a veterans team until just a few years ago.
Your husband was also an athlete, as a football player and then a coach; did you want your two children to become high-level athletes like you were?
Yes, of course. I think it is great way to live your life. My son and my daughter both played sport when they were younger, but they didn’t go as far as the professional level. They both decided they wanted to pursue their studies over sport and we didn’t push them to change their mind. My son did get a sports scholarship to study in the USA. But I have no regrets over the decisions they made, I think it is a mistake to push your children to become high-level athletes, my husband and I gave our children complete freedom to make their own choices.
How did women’s handball compare to the men’s game at that time?
I had the impression that more attention was given to the men’s teams. I played in the most successful women’s team of that time, that won the Yugoslavian league ten times and the Champions League three times, but we didn’t get as much coverage in the newspapers or attention from the Federation as the men’s teams.
Given your history with serious injuries, how much do you believe in injury prevention training?
I think that it can play a very important role. But we need to educate people in sport about it. We need to make coaches, medical staff and players aware of its importance so they can work together to achieve its benefits.
How much of being a professional handball player is talent, and how much is hard work?
To me, it’s 90% hard work and talent maybe is about 10%. Because if you have talent and you work hard that is what will take you to the next level.
What advice would you give to girls who want to get into handball?
I would absolutely encourage them to try it! Handball is the best sport, and I don’t say that just because I played it; it is a complete sport that demands intelligence and skill, as well as fitness. It is a great sport to develop all of these areas.
Looking back on all the years of training, playing, injuries, medals and everything else, are you satisfied with your career in handball?
I’m very grateful for the opportunities that handball gave me. I gained friends around the world. If it wasn’t for handball I wouldn’t find myself here today at Aspetar talking to you.
Doctors didn’t even diagnose your first ACL injury at the time, what do you think of the progress that has been made in sports medicine over the last 30 years?
I would say it’s like comparing a modern smart phone to a telephone 30 years ago. There really is no comparison.
How important is a good club doctor to the players?
For me, it is the number one person at a club. The health of the players is the most important thing. I was unfortunate that when I suffered my injuries, sports medicine was not as advanced as it is now, but that was just the level of knowledge at the time.