Ana Pantovic watches the London Olympics wistfully, fairly certain she could have been there competing alongside her close friends on the Serbian women's volleyball team. The images are bittersweet.
"I wish I was there, being on that team with my friends," she said earlier this week. "(The Olympics) was one of the biggest goals I wanted to achieve in my life."
But two years ago, Pantovic made a life-altering decision. A member of the Serbian national team since she was 16, she shuffled her goals and elevated continuing her education in America to the top of the list. Of course, playing volleyball in the U.S. made the list, too, and the list of colleges that coveted her was impressive.
Liz Kritza's pitch to "Pahnti" was simple and straightforward. Colorado volleyball, the Buffs coach told Pantovic, was in a rebuilding mode and needed a cornerstone. Not so much for those other high-profile schools - they included the likes of Tennessee, Washington and USC - chasing her.
The 6-5 Pantovic liked Kritza's approach and her intentions.
"When I was making any plans to come (to the U.S.) I knew there were a bunch of good teams," Pantovic said. "But when I talked to coach and heard all the plans she was making, I liked being a member of a team that is still building . . . you want to be a part of something that's going to be great, that is on the way to happening. That is even greater, even better than anything else. It was an instinct that made me come here and I think it was the best decision of my life. Definitely . . . for sure."
But within two weeks after arriving in Colorado two summers ago, Pantovic's life took another sharp turn. She had hardly suffered through more than a cold in her hometown of Vrnacka Banja, but a routine physical for all of Kritza's incoming athletes revealed a serious cardiac issue. Suddenly, everything changed. Kritza's plan to revive her program received a staggering blow. Pantovic's promising volleyball career in the U.S. was put on hold.
"It was heartbreaking; I don't even want to talk about how hard it was," Pantovic recalled. "It was just something you never thought would happen to you - especially because I felt good and had never had any (previous) issues. I never felt anything. Even today I still can't believe it, but I guess it's a part of me now. Thank God I've overcome it pretty well."
Hers is a good story that will get better, eventually going from heartbreaking to heartwarming. Picture what she went through: New country, unfamiliar surroundings, no friends or family present and being diagnosed with an issue that if not detected early surely would have worsened. This wasn't a high ankle sprain.
Not having her parents (Miroslav and Verica) or her brother (Marko) with her to help cope was crushing at times. "They were devastated . . . I cannot imagine how they felt," Pantovic said. "Everything that's ever gone on in our lives, we've always done it together. We give support to each other, we talk to each other . . . they made it easy for me a little bit, just knowing that they supported me. But I think it was a little easier for me that they weren't here. I wouldn't have to see them cry or be sad. I was doing it on my own. I might have kept some things from them, but I did it because I really care about them."
The personal support Pantovic lacked from her immediate family was supplied by her new CU family. Kritza, her staff and players and others in the athletic department rallied around Pantovic. But many times personal adversity is overcome with inner strength and in this case Kritza is certain that's what happened.
"I think about all the kids I've coached and all the athletes I've seen," Kritza said. "She's the most unique in the sense that she has the strength, a peace about her and quiet strength that she doesn't talk about. But she exhibits it. Her ability to deal with change at her age (now 22) is incredible to me. Going down a certain path in your athletic career, your life, your academic pursuits, you're going to have dips and bumps and detours along the way. Some people don't have the capacity to deal with that. In her, there's this perseverance and persistence that's really impressive. It's the same things, I think, that moved her along in her sport.
"She comes here and basically her whole world flips upside down. It's inspirational for anybody who meets her. She's incredibly likable, but once you get a sense of what she's faced and then you take into account how she handles herself, it's really just amazing. To be a world class athlete and then to have these struggles, I mean that is one of the most mentally and emotionally difficult things . . . I've been most impressed by that. She has an emotional maturity and an amazing strength of character. It's clearly seeing her through this."
Pantovic hasn't played a match in two years but she's now practicing on a "limited basis." She conceded she still might have ground to make up in conditioning, but added, "Just watching these two years and seeing how the game is played, I can bet I'll play better volleyball now than I did two years ago. For these two years I just had so much faith and coach had so much faith in me. She supported me that much and had faith that I would come back and be good . . . I had this vision of myself playing volleyball again and kicking ass and helping coach win and being with my team again. Coming back and having my first practice with the team was so fulfilling I can't describe it."
She is expected to receive final clearance to compete for the Buffs when they open the 2012 season on Aug. 24 at the Sam Houston State Invitational. Their first home matches come in the Omni Hotels Colorado Volleyball Classic on Aug. 31-Sept. 1 at the Coors Events Center.
Getting back on the court in either of those tournaments also might be indescribable for Pantovic, but "I think I dream about it every night actually," she said.
Pantovic was elevated to the Serbian national team when she was only 16 and was considered to be among the top five players in the world in her age group at her position. Her expected clearance to resume playing comes at an opportune time for CU. A redshirt sophomore, Pantovic essentially will join a 2012 recruiting class ranked No. 19 nationally by PrepVolleyball.com.
The unexpected layoff honed Pantovic's "persistence and patience" and she thinks she can lend her teammates experience in training "with discipline and complete devotion . . . but I think they're pretty good at that right now."
Two seasons of being a spectator motivated her more than she realized and made her miss things she might have taken for granted previously. "Just wearing the jersey . . . putting knee pads on . . . seeing the girls getting ready for the game," she said. "Our cheer before game - I never felt it truly. I never felt like I was doing it for real, knowing I'm going to be wearing that jersey and playing. Maybe sometimes I didn't understand what they've been going through because I wasn't there all the time. I wish I was there in the hard moments, the hard games that they had."
Those have been numerous. The Buffs can use a boost in the demanding Pac-12 Conference. CU finished 1-21 (6-24 overall) in its first season of Pac-12 competition. In Kritza's three years, the Buffs are 19-66 overall and 6-56 in conference play (5-35 in the final two Big 12 seasons).
Kritza believes Pantovic's presence, particularly her size and experience, will make a difference: "The teams we're playing are getting bigger, bigger and bigger. Her blocking ability at the net and her level of maturity as a competitive athlete at the international level are going to help us."
But there's much more to Pantovic than what was obvious during international play and the recruitment process. Kritza has seen it over a two-year span without ever seeing Pantovic on the court. It's called courage.
Said Kritza: "It's difficult to return from any type of injury, but she's a special kid to be able to see her way through this. Even if she never scores a point for us she's special; she's why you're in this business."