Posted on July 16, 2012 at 5:40 AM
Monday, Jul 16 at 6:29 AM
WINGATE, N.C. -- Despite his dad’s prompting, Marko Blazevski wanted nothing to do with swimming when he was 7.
The cold water scared him. But his attitude quickly changed, and the youth from Skopje, Macedonia, won his first swimming medal at age 9.
Blazevski later moved to California and now is a rising junior at Wingate University on the cusp of a dream: the 19-year-old is representing his home country in the Summer Olympics in London this month, swimming in the 400-meter individual medley.
He’s also the first person from Wingate, a small, liberal arts school in Union County, to compete in the Olympics.
“I’m very happy,” Blazevski said. “There’s been a lot of hard work and dedication, with practices that started at 5:45 a.m. at Wingate.”
The 400 IM is his best event: Blazevski is a two-time NCAA Division II national champion in that race.
He recently spoke to the Observer via a Skype video call during a break from training in Macedonia.
Blazevski finished high school in the United States after his family sent him to Monterrey, Calif., for an opportunity at a better education and improved swimming facilities. But he was disappointed when no Division I school would offer him a swimming scholarship.
He went online to continue searching for a college and liked what he saw about Wingate and its head coach for men’s and women’s swimming, Kirk Sanocki. Blazevski also enjoys Wingate’s small-town atmosphere and a climate that reminds him of his home, 5,200 miles away.
Sanocki called Blazevski a cerebral, focused athlete and natural team leader.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Sanocki said. “For him to be able to pursue his dreams without his parents with him for the most part (in the United States) is nothing short of remarkable.”
Blazevski was Wingate’s 2012 male athlete of the year and a Capital One Academic All-America honoree, for student-athletes with a GPA of 3.3 or higher. The finance major has a 3.84 GPA, according to the university and plans to attend graduate school.
At Wingate, Blazevski would get up at 5 a.m. to get ready for practices that started 45 minutes later. He swam for two hours, attended classes at 8 a.m., then had another two-hour practice in the afternoon.
Sanocki and Blazevski agree it is much harder to make the U.S. swim team, a traditional powerhouse, than it is to make the Macedonian squad. But Blazevski has competed in the same meets with the likes of Michael Phelps and other world-class swimmers and is not intimidated by them.
Blazevski said he knows he’s not at their level yet. He is happy to be among them as he works to top his NCAA record time of 3:50.56.
The 400 IM consists of 100 meters each of freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly, and is considered one of swimming’s most demanding events. Americans Phelps and Ryan Lochte are two of the favorites in the event.
Sanocki’s advice for Blazevski is not to get hung up on the performance or whom he is racing. “When you are 40, you are not going to worry about the performance, but what it represented,” Sanocki said. “(He should) take in every moment and enjoy the journey.”
Blazevski will be with a familiar presence in London. His dad is his longtime coach. That relationship has its good and bad sides, Blazevski said, and the two try not to discuss swimming when they are home.
“He’s tough, but when I’m listening (to him), he’s always a good coach,” Blazevski said. “I trust him.”
While in England, Blazevski may run into a couple of other people with local college ties to a foreign country. Johnson C. Smith University alumni Shermaine Williams and Leford Green are representing Jamaica in the hurdles.
One more thing.
There’s a 25 percent chance that Blazevski will be the flag-bearer for his country during the July 27 opening ceremony. Two swimmers and two track and field athletes will represent Macedonia, now that its basketball team was eliminated from qualifying for the Olympics.
There’s little time for Blazevski to rest after the ceremony, though. His event is the next day.
Blazevski also hopes to compete in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil and finish graduate school. He’s not sure if he’ll settle in the United States or Macedonia. That will likely depend on where he can get a job.
“I want to be wherever I’m happy,” Blazevski said. “And I’m very happy. Dreams do come true; that’s my message for all athletes who are training. Always believe.”