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Stipe Zunic after taking bronze in the shot put at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (Getty Images) © Copyright

Zadar – the home city of Stipe Zunic – was once described by iconic movie director Alfred Hitchcock as having "the most beautiful sunset in the world".

And perhaps the eclectic sporting journey undertaken by the Croatian world shot put bronze medallist could best be summed up as having as many twists and turns as a Hitchcock thriller.

Born into a family immersed in sport – his father excelled in martial arts – Zunic began his sporting life dreaming of a life on the NBA courts and to this day still enjoys a game of recreational basketball in his off-season.

He later followed his father’s footsteps, trying his hand at karate and judo before taking up kick boxing aged 12 where he proved a natural. Just three months after taking up the combat sport, he landed a silver medal at the Croatian Open and he later went on to secure national age-group titles and a world junior crown.

Zunic’s fondness for combat sports also saw him thrive in the boxing arena where he picked up a national age-group crown. However, aged 15 the multi-talented teenager discovered a gift for athletics and he rapidly developed into a javelin thrower of rich promise.

First athletics stop: the javelin

Aged 16 he finished seventh in his new-found event at the 2007 IAAF World Youth Championships in Ostrava. The next year he failed to advance from his qualification pool at the World Junior Championships but earned more crucial experience.

After leaving school and studying as a medical technician in his native Croatia, he continued to pursue both kick boxing and athletics on the international stage, but ultimately his desire to commit to both sports proved too demanding.

“At medical school I worked every day in the hospital and from 6-11pm each night I divided my time between kick boxing and athletics,” explains Zunic. “To progress in kick boxing I knew I had to probably go to Japan but I also had offers in the US from 10 or 11 colleges for a track and field scholarship.”

Struggling with a range of kick boxing-related injuries, he opted to focus on athletics and has no regrets.

 

Next stop: Florida

“Health-wise it was a smart move,” he insists. “To live overseas, travel the world was a good decision for me. At that point track and field gave me so much more.”

Attending the University of Florida from 2010 proved an “amazing” experience for the powerhouse Croatian. For two years he shared a room with Christian Taylor and formed a close friendship with the world and Olympic triple jump champion. He also became friendly with triple jumpers Will Claye and Omar Craddock as well as Olympic 400m hurdles champion Kerron Clement and developed a lasting bond with the group.

“We are like one big family,” he explains. “It is always a nice feeling to meet up again at competitions today."

Continuing to train specifically in javelin, although he also competed in shot and discus, Zunic enjoyed some success with the spear, finishing fourth and seventh respectively at the 2011 and 2012 NCAA Championships.

Yet injuries started to take their toll. In late 2012 he underwent a complete shoulder reconstruction and the following year elbow surgery – which led to a dramatic few minutes for the talented thrower.

“My body didn’t react very well to the anaesthetic and for three minutes I was critical,” he explains. “My blood pressure speared and my heart went down to 23 beats per minute. It was a complicated surgery and it was dangerous for a short period.” He admits, though, that some press reports claiming he almost died were a little “over-dramatised”.

Picking up the shot

Post-surgery, he fully intended to return to the javelin but to build strength he set up a “perfect” nutritional programme and started to compete in the shot put. With a modest PB at the time of 17.39m, expectations were low, but during the course of 2014 he staggeringly improved by more than three metres, which he describes as “a miracle”.

During the US season he tossed the shot 20.60m and later went on to finish sixth at the NCAA Championships. Then in August he finished fourth at the European Championships in Zurich with 20.68m, just 15 centimetres outside of the medals.

 

At the end of the season, thoughts of the javelin were swiftly abandoned in favour of his new-found event. In his senior year at the University of Florida he continued to flourish. Piling on 28kg in weight to tip the scales at 126kg, he cracked 21 metres for the first time, setting a national record of 21.11m to inflict defeat on Ryan Crouser, the 2016 Olympic champion, at the 2015 NCAA Indoor Championships. However, a back injury sidelined Zunic from the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015.

Having graduated from the University of Florida in 2015, he returned to Croatia where he randomly met an old acquaintance – and now coach – the former hammer thrower Marko Mastelic on the streets of Split.

“I bumped into him and asked him if he could help record my training and help out in the gym," explains Zunic. “He said, 'why not?' And since then we have become a great duo. We have a very good mutual understanding. I’ve generally stayed away from injuries over the past couple of years, which I believe has been a huge part of my success. I think previously my desire to go hard in training was doing me more harm than good. I’ve actually stepped off the training a little and it has paid off.”

The groundwork for ‘surreal’ London medal scene

He enjoyed a solid 2016, finishing ninth at the European Championships and 11th at the Olympic Games. Meanwhile, earlier this year in a high-class European Indoor Championships he hurled the shot 21.04m to place fifth.

After posting outdoor PBs of 21.45m in Split and 21.48m in Slovenska Bistrica, Slovenia, the Croatian knew he was in good shape entering the World Championships, but held realistic expectations.

“I was ranked 13th coming in and I thought if I could make top eight that would make me happy,” he says. “But I knew if I made the final, anything was possible.” 

And anything was possible.

In a history-making display, he became the first Croatian man in World Championships history to win a medal. A 21.46m effort in round two – within two centimetres of his Croatian record – earned him third spot on the podium behind New Zealand's Tom Walsh and USA's Joe Kovacs.

“It was surreal,” he says of his unexpected podium performance. “I think my final throw was my biggest throw at about 21.70m but I stepped out of the circle.” 

 

With the vociferous Croatian contingent “going bananas”, an emotional Zunic let it rip and provided one of the lasting images of the World Championships.

“It was such a splendid moment,” he recalls. “I had zero regrets. I was super happy and I picked up Tom Walsh (which would have been no mean feat in itself).”

With additional belief coursing through his veins, the world bronze medallist is looking forward with optimism to the 2018 campaign, which features the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham and European Championships in Berlin.

Yet for now you could forgive the 26-year-old powerhouse for basking in the glow of his London success.

“I have a feeling of gratefulness and satisfaction that all the hard work has paid off,” he says. “To go from a ranking of 13th to win bronze is an amazing feeling. It was a gift from heaven.”

Steve Landells for the IAAF