Most runners don't move from the United States to Croatia and become Olympic marathoners.
But Lisa Stublic did.
Stublic grew up in Waterbury, ran for Crosby High School and has dual citizenship in Croatia and the U.S. She will be the first female Croatian Olympic marathoner when she competes in the marathon in London on Aug. 5.
Stublic, 28, didn't plan on this. And it's not like Croatia is a place to which runners flock — handball and soccer are the country's top sports.
But after graduating from Columbia University in 2006, Stublic lived in New York City for a while, found it expensive and said she felt a little "lost." Her father Ivan, who still lives in Waterbury, was born in Sisak, Croatia. A music theory major at Columbia, she had been to a music festival in Croatia in the summer of 2006 and was enchanted by the country's beauty. In 2007, Stublic decided to move to her father's homeland.
"When I went there, I just bought a one-way ticket," Stublic said in an email. "I promised myself if I didn't do anything else, at least I would learn another language. Before I met my current coach, I was thinking of coming home, but the thing that kept me there is that I didn't learn Croatian well enough and if I went back to the U.S. without learning the language of my father well enough to have a fluent conversation, I would have felt like I wasted a year of my life."
At the time, she was coaching herself and teaching English. She knew she was a steeplechaser and a 10,000-meter runner. She was an All-American in cross country. She was not a marathoner. Oh, no. It was an impossible distance to run, she thought.
Then she met Slavko Petrovic, the Croatian 10,000-meter record holder. She wanted to race and joined an athletic club in Zagreb, where he coached. Immediately, he saw potential for endurance in her 5-foot-2, 97-pound frame.
"My coach said I was more suited for marathons," Stublic said last week in a Skype interview. "It seemed so long."
They made a deal: Stublic would first try to attain the world championship standard in the steeplechase in 2009. If she couldn't do it, she would try for the marathon. She fell 14 seconds short of the steeplechase standard.
"A deal's a deal," she said, laughing.
She started training for the marathon. A year later, in her debut at Berlin in 2010, Stublic ran under the Olympic qualifying standard, finishing ninth in 2:33:42. It was the fastest time by a Croatian man or woman that year. Stublic was stunned.
"When I saw the result," she told the Croatian Times at the time, "I thought I was dreaming."
Since, she has run two other marathons, finishing first in the Linz Marathon in Austria in April 2011, lowering her time to 2:30:46. Last summer, she finished the World Championships marathon in 2:36, but it was very hot outside, so she wasn't too put off by the time. She is Croatia's top distance runner, holding records in the 5,000, steeplechase, half-marathon and marathon.
Stublic started running as a freshman at Crosby High. She swam as a youngster but never really competed in any sport before.
"I didn't know what warm-ups were," she said. "My coach laughed at me because I asked what a varsity letter was.
"I was pretty good at it. I won my first race. It all started from there. Every year I got a little better, a little better."
In cross country, she was eclipsed by Meghan Owen of Killingly, who would go on to run at North Carolina and Providence. Owen beat Stublic in the Class MM championship meet in Stublic's senior year, running 14:49 over the then-2.5-mile course at Wickham Park, then beat her the next week at the State Open (Stublic finished fourth). Stublic won the Class MM 3,200-meter championship in outdoor track and was the State Open runner-up in the 3,200.
"She was a huge catch for us," said Craig Anne Lake, her coach at Columbia. "I remember being ecstatic when she committed. We had a program that was on the rise at that point. She helped turn the program into a national powerhouse."
Stublic helped Columbia win four Ivy League championships in cross country. She finished 10th in the NCAA steeplechase as a senior. She would run the 10,000 meters one night, then get up the next day and run the steeplechase for her team. Before cross country nationals her junior year, she was sick with a 104-degree fever and ended up in the hospital.
"Most kids are going to call it quits," Lake said. "She got released from the hospital and flew herself out [to Terre Haute, Indiana] two days later to compete. She was not 100 percent and was in the ambulance afterwards. We weren't making her compete by any means. She just knew her team was relying on her."
Lake was not surprised to see Stublic make it to the Olympics.
"I think she could have made the U.S. team," she said. "But I think it's cool she wants to compete for Croatia. What's she's accomplished is phenomenal."
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