People have often told Sasha Mehmedovic’s parents they should write a book about how they fled war-torn Sarajevo for Canada in 1993, and helped their son realize his dream of becoming an Olympic judoka.
When the 27-year-old steps on the mat Sunday in London to compete in his second Games, his family will be there watching – the father, mother and brother with whom he left the former Yugoslavia at 8, when the war which would eventually separate the nation erupted.
Mehmedovic was born in Pancevo, north of Belgrade. His mother, Olivera, was an Orthodox Christian from Pancevo, and his father, Nihad, a Muslim from Sarajevo.
The family moved to Sarajevo, but the two boys spoke with a dialect distinct to the Serbian area, as did their mother, which became troublesome when tensions rose in the now-Bosnian capital.
The boys were teased at school, and it became difficult for their mother to shop or speak with others in Sarajevo without being ostracized.
Olivera took the children to visit to her sick father in Pancevo. But right after they left, Sarajevo went into military blockade – no one could enter or leave the city.
Nihad was stuck there for three months as an officer supervising students at a military school.
“I was in there, thinking about my wife and boys, and it was so tough,” he said through tears in a recent interview in Canada. “We had no choice, we had to leave there so I could keep my family together.”
Olivera recalls Sasha crying for his toys which he had left behind in their apartment, wondering when they could go back. As the situation worsened in Sarajevo with bombs and gunfire, it became clear they would never return to that apartment.
When the blockade ended, the family reunited in Pancevo, and they looked for a new home. Nihad recalls vividly the day Canada stamped his visa and he parsed together enough words he knew in English to express his immense gratitude to the customs officer.
The family settled in Toronto. But Nihad had few job skills to support his family when they first arrived in Canada – other than his ability to teach judo.
He visited the 1993 judo world championships in nearby Hamilton and started making contacts. He eventually landed a job teaching the sport at the North York YMCA.
“I learned most of my English working with the kids at the YMCA,” Nihad said. “My boys learned the language faster than I did and would whisper corrections to my English me while I was teaching. Sasha started his love of judo there.”
By 12, Mehmedovic had set his mind on the Olympics and laid out a plan with his parents.
He joined a more competitive club in Ajax, Ont. Then, after several years, made the national team and left home at 18 to train in Montreal full-time.
“I don’t come from a wealthy family, so it was difficult, but my family supported my training in Montreal until I could get enough good results to become a carded athlete and get funding,” said Mehmedovic, who enters London ranked 22nd in the under-66 kilogram weight class by the International Judo Federation.
“They worked extra jobs, and it wasn’t easy, I’ll always be so thankful for that.”
Mehmedovic made it to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and lost in the quarter-finals by one point.
“I lost by such a small margin – I just broke down in tears,” he said. “I thought, ‘There is no question that I’m going back to the Olympics to try again.’”
Mehmedovic has faced challenges since Beijing. He had a knee surgery in 2009, and rules changes removed some direct leg attacks which were once among his strongest techniques.
His results dropped for a while, but the physical education student at Concordia University has regained form in recent months.
“I think he’s really been feeling the Olympics for a while now,” said coach Nicholas Gill, a two-time Olympic medalist. “A quadrennial can be very long time, and it’s normal to see the athlete’s form go down a little. But the older, wiser guys tend to get better as the Olympic time nears, and we’re definitely seeing that with Sasha.”
Mehmedovic’s father is now a physical education teacher – still instructing judo – at an private school in Toronto. His mother works there as well. They enjoy travelling overseas now, freely visiting their old homeland.
“It was a long road, rebuilding a life in a new country from scratch, helping our son become a high-level athlete, trying to coach, parent and put food on the table,” Nihad said. “It wasn’t easy, but we are so very proud of what we did as a family and so thankful to Canada.”