Mostar's teenage Games swimming hope aims to emulate hero

Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina) (AFP) –


She may lack an Olympic-size swimming pool in which to train in the Bosnian town of Mostar but that did not prevent 15-year-old Lana Pudar qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics where she hopes to compete with the best in the 100m butterfly.

Pudar's dream is to win Bosnia's first ever Olympic medal, but her coach and her mother say she heads to Japan without pressure and calm of mind.

The teenager hopes to reach the final alongside her hero -- Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom, 27, holder of four world records.

"She has always been my idol," Lana told AFP in an interview by the dilapidated 25-metre (82-foot) pool where she trains in a suburb of Mostar, the town in southern Bosnia known for its world heritage bridge.

Sjostrom was also only 15 years old when she began to have good results, the young Bosnian swimmer pointed out.

"I want to take a picture with her and I also hope to be her rival," she said.

Pudar began to make a name for herself in March when she qualified for the Olympics at a competition in Belgrade. Her time of 57.37sec was at the time the second fastest in the world this year.

- 'Competing with myself' -

"Lana has for a long time been achieving results that are at the level of Europe’s and the world's best in her age group and even in the higher categories," Damir Djedovic, head of her swimming club Orka, told AFP.

Her time in Belgrade time was the same as that of France's Marie Wattel and Greece's Anna Ntountounaki when they tied for victory in at the European Championships in May.

In Bosnia, Pudar holds records in almost all styles.

Since she turned 13 she has been breaking marks held by competitive swimmers in all age groups, notably in 50m and 100m butterfly.

"I don't count (records) anymore, I get lost," grins Lana.

"My mother takes care of that. As far as the butterfly is concerned, almost all national records are mine. Now, I'm competing with myself."

Pudar discovered her penchant for swimming when she was splashing about in Mostar's tiny municipal pool at the age of five.

"I took her there to learn to swim before going to the sea," said her father Velibor Pudar, a former football goalkeeper.

Only a few days later the swimming club's coach approached him.

"He told me that they wanted to put her in the club right away, that she was talented.

"Twenty days later he came back and told me: 'She's a real dolphin'," he recalled, making a reference to the regional name of the butterfly style.

- Podiums may come later -

Modest and smiling, Lana admits that a "little fame" makes her feel good.

"It's nice when people recognise me, congratulate me. But I try to stay focused on the goal," she said.

Her mother stressed that the "desire for a medal is there and she will do her best, but she will go to Tokyo relaxed.

"She doesn't have much experience and has to go carefully."

The podiums may come later, her coach agreed.

"Lana is the 'project' for the next three Olympic cycles," Djedovic said.

Her earning a berth for the trip to Japan is partly due to the coronavirus pandemic that delayed the Olympics by a year, admitted Alena Cemalovic, Lana's main coach.

Pudar "got closer to the norm only near the end of 2020," she explained.

Bosnia has only two Olympic-size swimming pools -- in the capital Sarajevo and the northern town of Banja Luka.

That means when Lana has to train for major competitions she has to travel for hours to get there.

Training in the small pool is like "training on a small soccer pitch and playing the matches at the stadiums", Cemalovic said.

On the back of her Olympic qualification, Pudar signed several sponsorship deals and secured the backing of Bosnia's Olympic Committee, which enabled her to prepare for Tokyo in Croatia and Turkey.

Lana's coaches meanwhile hope her story will led to a proper Olympic pool being built in Mostar.

Another swimming jewel from Mostar, 24-year-old Amina Kajtaz, who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics, afterwards moved to neighbouring Croatia in search of better facilities.

For now, Lana has no intention of leaving Bosnia. She wants to finish computer science high school in Mostar.

But her dreams take her further afield.

"I will try to enrol at a prestigious university in the United States or somewhere in Europe where I could pursue my sports career at the same time," she said.