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VANJA GRBIĆ'S LIFE STORY: 'While my father was dying, I went to the church and offered my life for his'
Foto: Ana Paunković


VANJA GRBIĆ'S LIFE STORY: 'While my father was dying, I went to the church and offered my life for his'

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I was born on 14 December 1970, in Klek. My father was called Miloš and my mother Danica. My brother Nikola is three years younger than me. People think that they know a good deal about me, and I let them, except that they only know what I want them to know. I alone know who I am really. Sara knows almost everything about me, as I do about her. But some things are mine alone. Sort of like lines of defence – these people can know this much, and those that much…

My earliest memories are of traumas. I was horrifically afraid of the dark, and waking up in the middle of the night was terrible. I would close my eyes and try not to breathe, to make sure that whatever was out there in the dark didn't get me… I also remember the training sessions that my father took me to, while he was still an active volleyball player and coach.

We grew up in a patriarchal family, but the role my mother had was crucial. My father did lay the tracks and mount the locomotive, but it was my mother that would put coal into the steam engine. It was a perfect combination of two people with different characters, who played different but profoundly compatible roles for the sake of our education and growing up.

Growing up military-style

Nikola and me were growing up in a military sort of atmosphere, where you knew what you were allowed to do and what extent. Developing good work habits was essential. After school and lunch with our parents, once they got some rest and had a cup of coffee, we would invariably go into the garden together. We would hoe potatoes, beans, everything. When we became strong enough, we would go into the field to cultivate corn. That was the best part of my childhood, even though it was physically strenuous, and you had to work hard on your patience.

My grandma would be in the middle, with her sons on either side. Then there was me and my mom, and on the far end my bro and uncle. We'd be tucked between two adults who could help us. And throughout the digging, my grandma would be telling us stories about growing up, struggling to make ends meet, focusing on the people with right on their side because they fought for the truth. That is what learning true values from an early age means, what tipped our scales and ended up defining who we were throughout our youth. We realized back in our childhood days that life is hard, but also that when you accomplish something, everyone will be proud of you.

Delayed pleasure

When we had time to play, it was a case of delayed pleasure, which is probably the most important category growing up. When a child wants something and you give it to them straightaway, they won't develop an understanding that they are fighting for it or that they should wait to increase the pleasure. We always caught the end of the games other children played. We knew that when our father started to wind down the roller shutters – and we had four big windows in our living room – that meant the end.

We had to be at home or at least at the door before he wound down the fourth shutter. Or, when the streetlights came on, we had to go straight home, you couldn't ever stay for just a bit longer. My father never said anything twice.

They tolerated some of our mischief. We collected clay in Bara and would often get cuts from glass there. And then we would pick up sticks that were once used to beat up children, put the clay on top, and swing them around. We thought up most of our toys and games. We played hide-and-seek for all we were worth, as well as "Cops and Robbers". We tried to make the games as complicated as possible. When I was 14 or 15, I climbed on a railing that ran around the park, whose pipe was about three centimetres wide. On one side, there was the sidewalk. On the other, a hedge. I walked some 40 metres down that railing, and managed to cross the full length of it twice. I didn't realize that that was going to help me a lot, that my life was going to be pretty much like that.

I didn't make it into the firefighter club

Many of my friends joined the firefighters club and won medals, but I never managed to get into it, even though I tried for couple of years. Everyone played football though. Football, basketball, tennis, and handball were seasonal sports, as there was no sports hall. Volleyball was a tradition. The women's team of the Klek club won the Cup in 1964, and the men's in 1972, which was a huge success in Yugoslavia. Later it all fell through. I trained football and volleyball in parallel. It was September, I was in the first year of secondary school, and my father said to me, "You can train whatever you want, you will play volleyball."

Preparatory school in Novi Sad

I was a straight A student in elementary school, and enrolled in the Koča Kolarov Preparatory School in Zrenjanin. I finished my first year with a GPA of 3, the second with 3.90. In the third year, I had a GPA of 4 again, and then I moved to Novi Sad. As I had left my peers behind, my father decided it was time to embark on a professional life as a volleyball player, and so I joined Vojvodina.

I enrolled in year four of the Jovan Jovanović Zmaj Preparatory School, which was then considered the most prestigious school in the former Yugoslavia. Unlike nowadays, there were no student sports cohorts and teachers weren't understanding of my involvement in volleyball. My GPA was 3 at the time. My last Russian language class was interesting. Because of travelling and things, I was being quizzed on the whole textbook. Eventually, the teacher said, "Dorogoy Vladimir, vy poluchite dvoiku." 'Dvoika', or 'two', means 'fail' in Russian, as does 'one' ('F') in our system. She wanted to fail me because I didn't enrol in the Sremski Karlovci Preparatory School, given my fantastic gift for languages. I managed to get a D somehow, even though my Russian is pretty much like a native language to me.

Responding to a blackmail

My one-year contract with Vojvodina expired in 1989. The talk I had with the then head of the club was very unpleasant and involved blackmailing. He said to me, "If you leave Vojvodina, I will destroy your career, you won't play anywhere else again." I called up my father and said, "Tell the Mladost people to come to Sombor." I was just on my way there to the inter-school Olympics. They were waiting for me in a car parked in lot in Sombor. I said to them, "Give me a contract!" "But you need to take a look!" they replied. "No!" You reach agreements with people, contracts are for those who mistrust each other. I signed it without ever looking. That was my response. Those who want to oppose me, or threaten me, or get contrary with me, very often get the worst possible response.

Vanja Grbić
foto: Privatna Arhiva

I never have regrets. Everything I do, I do with conviction and entirely of my own accord. And if something happens, that's God's will. You accept, and move on. That's it. When one door closes, God opens three more doors for you. You don't know why, but he has heard the conversations that you haven't.

I learnt the poem "Santa Maria" by heart in class

I remember that once, in the second year of prep school, we had to write a report on the biographies of some five or six men of letters and their works. But, we were also tasked with learning a part of Kostić's poem "Santa Maria della Salute" by heart, which I didn't have enough time to do. During the first period, the teacher quizzed us on the writers, but she didn't get to me. In the second period, the focus was on the poem, and I was among the first to recite it. I said that I hadn't had enough time, and the teacher replied, "That's an 'F', and we'll see where you go from there." While the other students were reciting, I learnt the poem by heart. I've never read it again, but I still know it.

People are afraid of themselves

People expect good things to come easily. As much as 99 percent of them live in the fear of trying, of giving their utmost, because they're afraid of realizing that perhaps they are unable to get there, that they are not who they believe they are. The world of the average is the world of those standing just before the line, afraid of stepping onto the pitch because what awaits them there is the hard truth of who they really are. That too is a matter of choice. Everything in life is a matter of choice. Someone says, "You know, I had to do it." Well, bubba, don't be telling me this, tell it to yourself. I have no truck with that. The only thing you have to do is die, but that's not up to us. You can take a bionic man, perfect in terms of physical build and everything else, but what makes all the difference isn't in the muscles, but in the head, the heart, and further south, if you happen to have them.

The army

So, back in 1989, I signed a contract with Mladost from Zagreb. Then came the draft. My father went to the municipal draft office to ask them to send me to Zagreb. And so, I got assigned to the ground troops at the Pleso air base. That's where I learnt what injustice, word of honour, and hierarchy meant. Still, the military service was a vacation of sorts to me. I got out 15 days early because I hadn't used up my leave of absence. I hit the ground running at Mladost and spent what is probably the best season in my career in Zagreb. We felt the city was ours and had a great environment, better than anywhere else in the former Yugoslavia. Late that year, we were already in negotiations to arrange Nikola's arrival. However, that tragic war broke out and everything fell through.

Nikola and me

I was with the national team, and during a break in the play, as trouble was already brewing, the roadblocks and Knin happened. I returned to Zagreb to withdraw a couple scholarship instalments, but I couldn't get anything, everyone was gone all of a sudden. I borrowed some money from a guy who owned a pool place at the Volleyball Club in Zagreb, to be able to return to Belgrade. I got off the train in Belgrade, boarded the plane to Athens, and headed to the Mediterranean Games. It was June. I arrived in the Olympic Village, where the Games were being held, at 2.30 am. On the following morning I heard that the war had broken out. The Croatian athletes decided not to play – which made sense and was a normal human reaction – and we did. The contract with Mladost was no longer valid, and I was faced with a choice: Vojvodina, where my bro played, or Red Star. Although the Red Star offer was better, I went to Vojvodina because of my bro. Nikola and me have never been rivals. The way we were as kids is the way we still are. We've never grown up in this respect. We goof around in our own special way. As my wife Sara often says, "Not even the Strasbourg Court could rule on which of you two is right." We never had that older brother, younger brother, authority sort of thing, just utmost respect, although we're worlds apart.

Vanja Grbić
foto: privatna arhiva

The beginning of everything

I wanted to go to the Hilandar Monastery for the longest time. I persuaded two of my friends to join me while we were vacationing on the seaside. Hilandar wakes up in you whatever is already there. Either you have it, or you don't. When you go there and realize that that's where the heritage of our nation and faith is safeguarded, when you see the dents in stones made by the monks' footsteps over more than 800 years, where the arrows, shields, and icons from the Battle of Kosovo are kept… You see the beginning, the long line leading to yourself, and how it continues. And you, amid that brief episode called life, need to understand, and find the role that you need to play. I realized that my role was the one I'm playing now – being focused on my children, preparing them for life, ensuring they grow up to be good people. Children from 37 countries come to me, of all races and religions, and we create something perfect. It's Serbia sending out a message.

So as not to explode

We never had psychological support as athletes. We only had tests in Zagreb in 1991, when the psychologist told me, "You need to find a way to unwind or else you'll explode." If you keep adding, you will explode. I go fishing whenever I can – to Apatin, Bečej, the Drina. I spend time with the people I love, and I enjoy nature. I'm fond of the sea. I have very good friends in the town of Metković. First-rate hedonism, that.

Trouble in Brazil

When I was 22, I left Vojvodina and went abroad as someone who played regularly for the national team. My mother would always cry. First when I went to Novi Sad, then Zagreb, and then Italy. It was only after I spent five years in Italy that she calmed down a bit. She cried when I went to Brazil too. Eventually, when I went to Russia and Japan, she didn't cry as much because Sara was with me. But, when I went to Turkey, she was worried because it was Turkey after all, and we went there with our two children. However, Istanbul is a timeless city, a city beyond. That's the best foreign gig that I've ever had. They are the closest to our mentality.

Vanja Grbić
foto: privatna arhiva

I spend 80 percent of my time doing the same things – matches and training… But, I had a serious problem in Brazil. You start training in the morning – running, the court, swimming – and do literally everything until the evening. I developed an inflammation of the biceps hamstring nerve, and a ninja therapist gave me a hot coal treatment. My flesh got burned and turned into sores. I had to rinse them ten times a day to prevent infection. Nonetheless, I was back on the court five days later. I still have scars, although this happened in 1997/1998. I have 11 holes burnt by fire. The coach mistreated me in Brazil too, so I came back with gastritis and two gastric erosions, i.e. holes in the stomach. I had to change my lifestyle completely, as well as my diet, the whole thing. Physical pain, fatigue, stress – all of that is gone within 96 hours at most, but the emotional stress lasts in excess of 30 days. And some traumas stay with you for life. Being defeated by Treviso in 1995, when we lost the championship because they were better and we were helpless and exhausted – that will stay with me forever.


I've had many loves and crushes, mostly unrequited. When I was in secondary school, I thought female gymnasts were the most beautiful, but they were usually full of themselves, and I was very shy. Generally speaking, this is a part of me that I don't like to talk about much. I tried to make my partner feel like a queen. The only true love that I've had is Sara. When we met in 2001, she was 21 and I was 31, at the ceremony where the athlete of the year was to be announced. As a karate athlete, she was the best among the juniors, and I was the best among the seniors. We immediately started to text very often. I asked her to go to the airport and meet a friend of mine who was supposed to bring something for her. That friend was actually me! I think she still holds on to the toys that I brought her. And since February 2001, the two halves of the same apple started to get closer together. I only stayed a day, I had to go back to Rome. I came for another short visit in March. When I returned again in April, we never separated again. She accompanied me back to Rome. In June we got engaged, and then she resisted getting married for a long time, until 25 August. We had a wedding meal in Novi Sad, with 60 or 65 of us in attendance. We gathered together all the generations of our family – the grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers, mothers, sisters with their own families, so that, should they run into each other in the street, they knew they were now related. The wedding celebration took place at a restaurant in Ada Ciganlija. The paparazzi were chasing me trying to snap pics of my bachelor party, hiding all over the place, while I was fishing with my best man Saša Ilić at a dam near Klek. Sara and me continued to have fun together. She went to Japan with me, and Greece too. We welcomed our daughter Ina in 2004, in Moscow. Twenty years on, we still call each other 'duckling'. I wish that sort of marriage for my children as well. No arguments. There are differences, but patience, tolerance, and understanding can resolve and overcome it all. When you realize that you have children together, they become priority. Family, that is a whole.

I named my son after Prince Lazar

The Grbić family is descended from the Hrebeljanović's. After the Battle of Kosovo, they found shelter at the Gornik Monastery, until some 20 years later they had to flee from the Bulgarians. Some of them were entrusted with keeping Lazar's crown and were surnamed Krunić, others were given the flag, and those who were entrusted with the coat of arms ('grb') were named Grbić. They reached Herceg Novi, which can mostly be traced based on family saint celebrations and churches. In Herceg Novi, there is a Church of Saint Sergius and Bacchus, which is also our family saint's day. They then moved to Dubrovnik, where they took on a Venetian surname, only to revert to the original one and reach Zadar. There is a village called Grbići near Zadar, with a population of Catholic converts, of course. They also went deeper into the mainland, all the way to the spring of the river Zrmanja. The community of brothers and sisters lived primarily in Lika, and they were for the most part gendarmes or railway workers. My great-grandfather Bogdan arrived from Lika to take up a post in Trebinje, where he met my great-grandmother. My grandfather was only born in Lika, but he grew up in Pridvorci near Trebinje, where he married my grandmother. And then, in 1946, they took the train without a return ticket to Banat. Whether this is true from the Hrebeljanović's onwards cannot be confirmed with certainty. They say that the truth is what you believe in. Given that there is a lot of the Hrebeljanović spirit in us, first and foremost to do with patriotism, I do believe it's true. Needless to say, I named my son Lazar, after Prince Lazar.

Greatest joys

My first joy – my daughter Ina. As Sara often says, she was a perfect child, by the book. Now she is a young woman, 17 years of age, and it feels like it was yesterday when I observed the little Martian. I remember, I was alone with Ina when she was born, Sara went out grocery shopping with her mom. I literally froze, baby in arms, when she left. Three minutes into this, I called her up and said that she was crying like she'd never cried before. You simply have to deal with such things as they come along. Athletes live in an ivory tower – we didn't know how to do the everyday things, like standing in a line, or paying the electricity bill. Someone would do that for us because it was distracting us, sucking out energy from what you should be doing. We weren't hoping to have a son. We expected Zoe, and Lazar was born instead. We didn't want to be told the sex of any of our children. I was present at all the four births. I believe that I should be there for the woman that I love when she needs me the most. Especially in Moscow, where she didn't know anyone, and she couldn't speak the language well. That was one of the four most wonderful experiences that I've had. The other three were in Belgrade.

Vanja Grbić
foto: Privatna Arhiva

My whole career was an attempt to show to my country and people how honoured I am to play for them. Olympic gold means something. As do the medals. But, my children are my trophies. I have four most beautiful trophies – Ina (17), Una (15), Mila (9), and Lazar (5). That is the top of my game. Ina and Una trained rhythmic gymnastics and karate, and they train volleyball now. Mila trained junior sports, tried a bit of volleyball and loved it, but I think it's still too early.

Death of my father

My biggest grief – the death of my father. You don't come to terms with it, or accept it. He had a heart attack, was resuscitated, and transferred to Zrenjanin. They put him on life support as he was in a coma, and we somehow managed to move him to Belgrade. We were hopeful, truly hopeful when he was at the Clinical Centre. However, he got transferred to the Military Medical Academy hospital. When he was transferred there, I felt, I knew it was over. The struggle went on for about ten days back in September 2008. It was God's will. He was a father and a coach, he set an example and led the way in every sense of the word. His own worst enemy, as everything he did, he did to the extreme. He was dotting the i's and crossing the t's to the very end, as was his fate.

While my father was dying, I went to the church and offered my life for his. But that was an egotistic thing to do. At that point, I had two children and a wife, my own family, and my own responsibilities. He would have been the first to tell me, "Have you lost your mind?" It was a genuine emotion, but it was misdirected. When he died, I stopped my career. The 2008/2009 season was my last. But my father is always there. When Nikola won a championship, my father would say, "OK, not bad." After he won the Champions Cup, I called him up and said, "OK, not bad." We had a good hearty laugh then. Even now, I ask Nikola, "You got enough money?" because that was what my father used to say. When it was all over, when we buried him, some things happened to me – to do with taking responsibility, life, everything. I had a powerful urge to go to Hilandar again. That's where I learnt in 2012 that Sara was pregnant again, with Mila. That moment in Hilandar, when I entered the third narthex that Prince Lazar had made in 1380. There's an interesting wall there, with Saint Vladimir of Moscow, Prince Lazar, King Milutin, Serbia's greatest ktetor, and on the far end, Miloš Obilić. I felt then as if my late father was saying, "Work, preserve the tradition, be a ktetor, I'm watching over you."


I can cry only out of genuine emotion, although for some it might be silly, like morals. I cried watching Braveheart and Mel Gibson. Not when they kill him, but when Robert the Bruce, who betrayed him, comes back from the English king, and says to the Scots, "You have braved with Wallace. Now brave with me." The Scots throw Wallace's sword up in the air, it sinks into the earth, and they start to fight. There are things worth living and dying for. They are love and faith. Money comes and goes, what really matters cannot be bought.

Vanja Grbić
foto: privatna arhiva


When I ended my career, I enrolled in the Faculty of Sport and Physical Education, and graduated on 1 October 2014. I started my PhD studies as well, in order to understand how to best work with children. I'm very proud of the special Olympics, working with children with intellectual disabilities. I still need to get my PhD, which will happen very soon. Sadly, I'll probably be the only top athlete, Olympic champion, and member of the Volleyball Hall of Fame to get a PhD in sports and physical education. I also need to complete a project that I don't want to talk about, related to working with children and their health. Since the things I talk about in public get stolen, I will keep silent now.

When I am gone...

When I am gone, I would like people to remember this: "It's up to you, don't give up, fight." Whenever they fall upon difficult times, I want them to know that surrender is worse than defeat. They should also work to preserve what we are and who we are, regardless of times, trends, and the fact that it's not an 'in' thing to say, "I'm Serbian."

Jelena S. Spasić

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