As Serbia’s 22-year-old 400m hurdler Emir Bekric crossed the finish line at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow, his coach looked on with justifiable pride. Bekric’s time of 48.05, good enough for the bronze medal, was not only a personal best for himself, it was a landmark achievement for his coach, Mirjana Stojanovic.
Fittingly, Stojanovic was recognised with the European Athletics Women’s Leadership Award a few weeks later in Tallinn, Estonia, at the same awards ceremony at which Bekric received the European Athletics Rising Star award.
In the first of a regular series of 2013’s 26 Women’s Leadership Award winners, we profile her career as an inspiration for others, both men and women, serving our sport.
“Just as athletes maintain a log of their personal results, I also keep a record of the best results my athletes have achieved,” explains Stojanovic, the Serbian National Sprints and Hurdles Head Coach. “I am proud when, in the biggest international competitions, they are in a good shape and can compete with other top competitors.”
It is a feeling the 62-year-old has become accustomed to overseeing Bekric’s transition from talented junior to senior global medalist as well as the careers of several other Serbian hurdlers.
Despite this, Stojanovic knows that female high-performance coaches are a rarity, especially within the Balkans region, which makes her journey from psychology student to the top of her profession all the more impressive.
That path was littered with challenges, as she readily acknowledges. “I’ve always felt that all the results that I achieved had to be confirmed three times before they were accepted and that there was always doubt in my work because I am a woman,” she says.
“I’ve heard male colleagues say to me, ‘Mirjana, please go home and cook your lunch! What are you doing in the stadium?’ and recently a young athlete moving into my training group was asked why he was going to let a woman train him. I’ve always been subject to this kind of prejudice.”
Having entered the sport as a youngster following some successful outings in cross country races at school, Stojanovic never planned to become a coach. Indeed, she was all set for a career as a psychologist until, on a whim, she applied for a coaching position at a local athletics club after gaining her qualifications as a hobby.
“I’d just been training four or five girls to make a good relay team, but my application was accepted and before I knew it, I was a professional athletics coach. It wasn’t as planned, but it was meant to be,” she recalls.
Stojanovic hasn’t looked back since, as she has spent her entire working life in athletics, the sport to which, she says, she owes everything: “My life is athletics. It’s given me everything I have; my family, my job, my house, good kids, great friends and the opportunity to travel. It’s given me the pleasure of meeting a lot of good people.”
Stojanovic’s passion for the sport is undimmed and she plans to continue coaching for the foreseeable future. Now she has a taste for global championship success, she understandably wants more: “I love athletics. It’s in my heart. In the future I want to achieve even more valuable results with my athletes. I always used to say ‘give me an athlete with a wish for success even greater than mine and they will be my first Olympic Champion.’”
But it’s not just athletes for whom Stojanovic wants success. She wants to help improve coaches and the status of the coaching profession.
“I want to convey my knowledge to young coaches and continue my work, helping to popularise our sport,” she says. “I’m always to trying to get as many young people as possible to learn about athletics, to train, to watch, to cheer and rejoice in the success of athletes. I am trying to change and improve the status of coaches and to make their work and creativity adequately priced and valued.”
The role of female coaches, in particular, is an issue that Stojanovic feels strongly about and, while she is delighted to receive recognition through her Women’s Leadership Award, she still feels that more progress is required.
“My opinion is that, in general, very little is said about women coaches and their results,” she says.
Mirjana Stojanovic is rapidly changing that situation.
The European Athletics Women's Leadership Awards
The aim of the European Athletics Women's Leadership Awards is to recognise the behind the scenes work and accomplishments that have helped to make the winners role models for other women in athletics. Coaching young athletes, officiating, setting up and managing clubs . . . their achievements are as varied as the individuals themselves.
In 2013, 26 women were selected for the award by their national athletics federations.