By John Roth, GoDuke the Magazine
The hammer throw is one of the oldest events in track and field, first appearing in the modern Olympics in 1900. It took another century before women were permitted to compete at that level, in the Sydney 2000 Summer Games. So Tokyo 2020 will mark just the sixth Olympics featuring the women’s hammer throw.
Duke’s Stefani Vukajlovic dreams of being there to participate.
A native of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Vukajlovic is about to wrap up four years with the Blue Devil track and field program. Following spring semester exams, she performed in her final ACC Outdoor Championships, picked up her engineering degree at commencement exercises and stepped into training for NCAA postseason competition.
Later this summer she will likely head home for a month or so to compete for her country, then return to Washington, D.C., to begin her new job as a software consultant.
All the while, there is the hope that next summer she could be busy preparing for a trip to Tokyo.
“It’s been a dream ever since I started being an athlete, especially once I got into hammer throw and saw a lot of people around me were really good and made the Olympics,” she said. “Ever since then it was my goal, too. The Olympics is a dream come true for every athlete. I feel like it is the culmination of your career. If you can win a medal that’s great, but for now I’m just shooting to get there.”
The Olympic qualifying standard for 2020 is 72.50 meters. Vukajlovic’s personal best throw is 64.95 meters, so she has some work to do to punch her ticket to Tokyo. She hopes she can reach 67 or 68 meters by the end of this season and improve from there in the next year.
If her progress as a senior is any indication, her goal could be realized. Vukajlovic set Duke’s school record her sophomore year at the ACC Championships, and broke her own mark as a junior at the Texas Relays. As a senior, all six of her outdoor college meets have seen her throw farther than the record she set last year, topped by her 64.95 meters (213 feet, 1 inch) at the Duke Invitational.
That ranks her among the top 20 in NCAA Division I entering postseason competition. Like her, almost half of those 20 hale from outside the United States.
“This year we did a better job of timing our practices so I peak at the time I need to peak,” Vukajlovic said. “That’s what’s happening right now. I keep progressing. This is the best year so far. Usually I have a pretty good early season and I’m not as great at the back end of the season. This year we have had continuous improvement, which means we are doing a better job of timing.”
Vukajlovic was relatively new to the hammer throw when she arrived at Duke. Her first experience with it came as a high school freshman when a club teammate asked her to give it a try at a practice session. She liked it immediately, began training and within a year had attained the qualifying standard for the IAAF World Youth Championships.
“The thing I like about it is the technical side of it,” she noted. “You have to be strong, you have to be explosive, you have to be fast, and then you have to be technical, which is completely different from other track events I did. I thought it was challenging at the same time, and I always liked challenges.
“You would think that the strong man would throw it the farthest, but technique is 70 percent of it, I would say…Sometimes it takes years and decades and it’s never good enough. Some people pick it up quickly. But it’s never perfect. I feel like you keep improving throughout the years.”
Vukajlovic’s rapid early improvement prompted her coach back home to plant the idea that she could use her expertise to earn a college scholarship in the United States. That became her goal, and she eventually applied to several top universities. She was in the process of filling out financial aid forms for Yale when an offer came from Duke. She liked what she heard about the university and the track program from associate head coach B.J. Linnenbrink, the throws coach, so she committed without taking an official visit.
Upon arrival, Vukajlovic says she was positively surprised to find Americans so warm and welcoming to her, but she did not have the easiest of transitions to life in the U.S. Along with adapting to a different culture and climate, adjusting to a new learning environment and healing from a high school injury, she suffered a personal tragedy when her father had a stroke and passed away shortly after she got to campus.
“That was a very sudden thing I never expected to happen,” she said. “That was the hardest part of my freshman year, but a lot of friends I met here and the coaching staff helped me get through that.
“I didn’t progress as fast as I wanted to,” she added. “The results I achieved last year (as a junior) were the ones what I wanted to achieve my freshman year, so it was hard but I never gave up. Finally this year I am seeing the results of all my hard work, and I think more results are coming by the end of the season. Ultimately the goal is to go to nationals and be first team All-American. I think we’re going in a good direction.”
Vukajlovic, who has been speaking English since she was six years old, described her four years at Duke as a time of tremendous cultural growth. Academically she majored in Electrical Computer Engineering and Computer Science, and athletically she enjoyed the bonds she formed with her training partners and the rest of the track community. “It’s something I don’t think regular students can experience at Duke,” she said. “It’s like another family here and I think that’s been an important part of my education, having such close friends that you see on a daily basis. It really helps.”
Moving forward, Vukajlovic will have new transitions to deal with as she enters the working world while continuing to train for her Olympic dream. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been represented as an independent nation at the last seven Olympiads, since 1992, though the country has not yet produced a medal winner. It sent its largest delegation to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, with 11 athletes under the flag.
“My country is best known for shot putters,” she said. “We have a good 800-meter runner. We have a few other sports, but it’s never a big team. I’m hoping it’s going to be me next year.”