This is me: Jovanka Radicevic
Jovanka Radicevic. A sportswoman. A fighter. A fearless competitor. And an inspiration. The embodiment of strength and courage. A true lioness at heart. And, when all is said and done, a life-long handball fan, who devoted everything to her love for the sport and her country. In our latest series of interviews exclusive to EHFCL Weekly subscribers, the Montenegrin star tells us, in her own words, an intimate story of her life and career.
THIS IS ME: JOVANKA RADICEVIC
The heart of a lioness
I believe everything in life should be done 100 per cent. The same goes for love, work and friendships. Especially when there is one thing that encompasses them all – handball.
It’s pure love. Simple as that. Although, I must admit, it was not my first love. But, once I stepped on the court for the first time, there was no other choice.
Throughout my childhood in my home city of Podgorica, I wanted to become a football player. From daybreak until sunset all I did was play football outside with the boys. I was home only to eat and do my homework. Then I was back outside kicking the ball.
From an early age it was evident that sport was I all I wanted to do. Unfortunately, women’s football did not exist at that time in my country, so I opted for a smaller net instead.
Handball was already a huge part of my life, as my mother was a talented player. Her coach, legendary Vinko Kandija, was a regular guest at our house. However, my mother decided not to pursue her career and retired early to devote to family.
Women’s handball was growing in popularity at that time and Podgorica had two good clubs – Titeks, were my mother played, and Buducnost, where I started.
We always knew I had the talent and ability to do it, but it was not until I turned 12 that I seriously considered handball. To ease my disappointment at not being able to join a football team, my mother came to me and said: “Why don’t you try handball?”
So I went to practice. I instantly fell in love with it. My mum was overjoyed, of course.
I still remember my first training at Buducnost. My coach was Natasa Cigankova, a fabled player, who later coached the national team as well. She took me under her wing from the first day and was like a parent to us all.
Natasa taught us many important lessons about handball, friendship and in life. We traveled many places together and the club was like my second family. That is probably when my bond with handball grew the most.
The sports aficionado that I am, as I started handball, I was also trying my hand at athletics for a while, and Natasa instantly recognised that. Being left-handed, athletic and highly competitive, I was destined for the right-wing position.
As I grew, both as a person, and as a player, it was clear to me that handball was something I thoroughly enjoyed. I couldn’t say that I knew success would come for certain, but I was determined to give it my best shot and make my mother proud. I dreamt that I could win all the things she did not have a chance to. Every success of mine is hers, as well.
I was promoted to the Buducnost first team at the age of 15. The thought of training for the first time with all of the great players was a huge responsibility for me. Looking back, I felt the same nerves, the same tingling sensation as when I stepped out on the court to play the final. All of my idols were there, but there were no egos in the dressing room. One of the experienced players, Snezana Damjanac, played in my position. She moved to left wing so I can have a go at the right wing. That was the sort of family we were.
From the first moment at Buducnost, it all felt so familiar; warm, friendly. We were now a family. I was embraced and mentored by the more experienced players, the same way I am doing at Buducnost today. There was a lot of support, from day one.
Everything changed from that first training session. Every practice became like a match, and every match felt like a final. Some players had the strength, some had the power. I gave my absolute best every day. That was my thing.
We went through so much together at Buducnost. We believed in hard work and friendship, but above all, we lived for handball. There were ups and down, as always, but we believed that we were destined for success. Back then, we were not even aware that we were building a foundation of a team that is going to be at the top for years to come.
After 12 beautiful years at Buducnost it felt like I achieved all I could at the club, and it was time to move on. I was 24 and hungry for new challenges.
My next destination was to Hungary and to Györ.
Moving to Hungary was a big thing for me, but I felt I was the right move. It allowed me to see a different perspective and open myself for new experiences. I have always followed my inner feeling. It guides my every decision and I was never wrong.
But, if you want succeed, you need more than just good players. You need a good atmosphere, a good spirit and a positive vibe. That is much harder to create than a team of good individuals.
Despite the sudden change of scenery, Györ soon felt warm and familiar to me. Wonderful people at the club made me feel at home very quickly. And soon it all clicked on the court as well.
Once I settled Györ many pieces of the puzzle fell in place and both 2012 and 2013 were the best years of my career for for me, my club and for my country. However they were also the most challenging.
I value all competitions equally, but the Olympic Games are a notch above any other.
In London 2012, we made it to the Olympic final but lost a hard-fought battle with Norway.
It all had a bitter-sweet feeling. Knowing I am standing there, on the podium, after giving it all, proudly shedding tears and sweat for my country, but knowing we deserved more from that game. That silver medal bears a lot of emotions. A sense of pride, joy, recognition, an inspiration, but also motivation. I was itching to set the record straight, as soon as possible.
The opportunity came only a few months later, at the EHF EURO 2012 in Belgrade.
We came into the tournament without some of our best players. Bojana Popovic and Maja Savic retired after the Olympics, but I felt we were ready to take the game to them; playing against Norway for the second time in less than four months in front of thousands of fans. It felt like another half of that Olympic final.
We continued straight from where we left off in that match, as if nothing happened in between. I felt there was some mysterious force behind us, pushing us to the win. Later I realised, it was our spirit and togetherness. We felt each other’s pain and joy, we shared everything together, and did it together – all for one, and one for all. The moment I heard the final whistle and felt the first gold medal for Montenegro on my chest, I felt so many emotions. The wounds from the lost Olympic were healed.
The glorious end of 2012/13 season, crowned with Women’s EHF Champions League trophy, saw one of my greatest dreams come true. My mission at Györ was complete.
The very same gut feeling I’ve listened to for all my life had never failed me. In 2013 it was again time to move on, and something new was on the horizon. And it brought me to Vardar.
They had a huge project at Vardar and it was a privilege to be a part of it. It was a very rare opportunity in handball to work in such wonderful conditions. Especially for a women’s team.
The five years spent in Skopje were the stuff of fairy tales. We were living the dream.
The fans, the excellent support from the club, tge wonderful arena and never before seen level of conditions, made us enjoy every second of our handball. I was again part of a big family.
I don’t have many regrets in life, but one of the biggest is that we were not able to bring the EHF Champions League trophy to Skopje. We came very close on two occasions, but success eluded us. At least I am happy that the dream came true for the men’s team, who were able to do it twice.
In 2018 I found a temporary home at CSM Bucharest. I enjoyed my time there, before moving back to Podgorica.
My return to Podgorica saw me come full circle. I was away for eight years and I had missed everything. My family, my friends and Buducnost, my club. The feeling of being back to the place where I started, older, more experienced – some even say better! – brought inspiration and drove me forward.
But, when I really want something, I usually dream about it for months. And, that’s the case when it came to reaching a third Olympics. All I wanted was to qualify for Tokyo 2021. I hadn’t slept for weeks prior to the qualification tournament. I still don’t know how was I able to play.... It must have been that feeling and that invisible force that guided me throughout my career, which gave me the strength. And I did it.
I am happy to say that at 34, I am still able to fully enjoy handball. It is a pure enjoyment for me now. Young players at the club make me feel like I am 19 again. We do everything together, and I love to be able to help. It is nice to be able to give back and continue the tradition of nurturing younger generations of players.
I am old-school in that regard. I believe in good old-fashioned hard work and dedication. From training and nutrition to mental strength and preparation, I believe in never giving up and being 100 per cent dedicated to give my best. At all times.
For how long? Well, as long as I can find ways to enjoy it.
It is still early to talk about my life and plans after handball, but I will definitely remain in the game and stay involved with in some way. Maybe helping younger players after my playing days are over.
But there is plenty of time for that.
Right now, I am focused on the challenges ahead. So many things to be done. We want to go through against Györ. It is always nice to come back to place where I was loved and had so much success. I am still in touch with so many people from Hungary. They invite me to come back! But it is great that they still remember me and love me.
However now I have a mission to make it to another DELO EHD FINAL4, and then there are Tokyo Olympics to look forward to.
This is me. I live, breathe, speak, love and think handball.