Peter Mankoč was born on 4th July 1978 in Ljubljana, where he has lived ever since. At the time, that day was a holiday: the Day of Combatants celebrating the courage of Yugoslav Partisans rising against German Nazis in 1941; maybe the spirit of that holiday was somehow imprinted in Mankoč, the best Slovenian swimmer of all time. He has been a true and courageous fighter in the swimming pool throughout his career. It all started when he was four and he learned how to swim with help of his grandmother. Later, in elementary school, he was asked to join the Ilirija Swimming Club on the basis of his results in a swimming test.
He started training regularly accompanied by his grandfather Karl. Family has always played key role in Mankoč’s development into a top-level athlete, as he never forgets to emphasize. In childhood, his grandparents played an important role, because he spent a lot of time with them due to the long working hours of his parents.
In later years, his father, a successful businessman, resumed this important role as the main supporter and motivator helping him with achieving his results. Mankoč says that he could never have made it in sport like swimming where the top-level training is hard and time-consuming on one hand, and on the other the sponsors’ input relatively small without the help and support of his family.
But once he’s in the pool, Peter has always done it himself. He was progressing all the time, winning medals on the national level and setting records in his age group.
His career went through a crisis when he started high school. Relatively tall and strong – today he is 192 centimetres tall and weighs around 87 kilograms – he was flirting with basketball, which has been his second favourite sport, But swimming won and after a year-long crisis he was back in the swimming pool for good.
His career continued with international success. He swam on his first Olympic Games, in Atlanta in 1996, when he was 18. He also took part in the next three Olympic Games in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. But his greatest results were achieved in shorter disciplines on European Championships. His speciality is medley, because he is very good in all four swimming styles. He’s well known for his fast start and brilliant turn making him a hero of 25-metre swimming pools.
Successes and injuries
Mankoč first worked with the coach Mišo Sladoje, but when he got sick and later died, Dr. Dimitrij Mancevič started taking care of Mankoč’s sports progress. Mancevič is a Belarusian swimming expert who was invited to Slovenia in 1991. Mankoč was 22 when he won gold medal at the European Championship in 2000 in the 100 m medley under Mancevič’s leadership. It was his first out of nine he has gathered so far.
Last summer, he was very well prepared, but his hopes of success on the Beijing Olympic Games, where swimmers compete in 50-metre swimming pool, were shattered by injuries.
“That was a really hard time for me. I didn’t find it easy to face with the shoulder injury, after I had trained so hard and was ready for a first class result. Otherwise, I feel that the Olympic Games are grossly overrated and that everybody else benefits from them far more than athletes, but I really wanted an Olympic medal from Beijing.”
Mankoč has been facing injuries as do almost all top-level swimmers. “People think that swimming is a sport almost without the injury risk,” he explains, “but that is true for recreational swimming. In top-level swimming, the forces and the physical strain are so great that knee and shoulder injuries are quite common. Often my problem is that I train too hard. I am fully aware of the fact that in order to achieve top results one has to train extremely hard, so it had happened quite often that I was training that hard even when I was feeling I was on the verge of getting injured. The hope that it will somehow turn out for the best was shattered many times – my great wish to train as much as I can often resulted in injury. But top-level sport means always facing your edge all the time …”
Considering the six to eight hours daily that he spends training, one might understand the injuries more easily.
No weight or shoe size categories …
In his opinion, the mind – one’s motivation – is essential in top-level swimming; if you have this aspect working for yourself, a lot of goals that first seem completely out of reach become possible and accessible. It is also his mind that enables him not to dwell upon his own disadvantages but to use his advantages. He has to work against the fact that his hands and feet are relatively small for a top class swimmer, the span of his arms not as wide as in some other swimmers. The best swimmers usually have the span of the arms 20 centimetres wider than their height is but Mankoč’s span more or less equals his height.
“I cannot influence any of these things, so I don’t think about them,” he says. “When you’re in the water nobody asks you about the size of your hands or span of your arms, and no one rewards your smaller hands with a medal … There are no weight or height or arm’s span or shoe size categories in swimming. Just as nobody asks you about your training conditions – which are, by the way, very bad in Slovenia – the only thing that matters is how fast you are in the water. That ‘s why I rather think about how to train as well as possible and about my advantages; I have a very good ‘feeling for water,’ I’m one of the world’s best when it comes to underwater turns …”
Mankoč’s motivation for competing is affirmation, the acknowledgement as he says, because there is very little money to be earned in swimming even for one of the best; definitely small change compared to football or basketball. In his opinion, the state should financially award its top-level athletes appropriately. He sees the wider social significance of sport in the example they represent; they are very good role models especially for young people.
“The role of the top-level athlete, who is also a representative and promoter of his or her country, is important,” says Mankoč, “but for me a far more important aspect is the effect of this person in his or her own country. Research has shown that investment in top-level athletes proves profitable on many levels. Kids who see their sports idols’ devotion, hard work and persistence (and being adequately compensated in the material sense), run out joyously to the sport grounds, to sport halls and swimming pools, which is – as we all know – a great way to stay out of drugs, delinquency and other troubles. In my opinion, the Slovenian state should take better care of their top-level athletes.”
Mankoč is also critical of the changes of rules considering the swimsuits that have been changing a lot in the last two years. He’s supportive of the international swimming federation’s (FINA) provision to allow only textile swimsuits from waist to knees starting with 1st January 2010. He feels the provision might even be a bit drastic, but neoprene swimsuits meant devaluation of former swimming achievement, and most of all they were in advantage of a certain type of swimmers; very strong, muscular swimmers with relatively worse swimming technique. However, at the beginning of December in Istanbul he wants to win the European Champion title for the tenth time in a row, so he’s preparing for the competition in neoprene swimsuit that is still allowed to the end of the year. His ambitions for Istanbul are even higher – breaking the world record in 100-metre medley.
The competition is also the reason for his trip to Font Romeau, a training centre in the French Pyrenees, located 1850m above sea level. “I try to go to train in the high altitude at least once a year,” he says. “It results in ‘better’ blood with more erythrocytes delivering oxygen around the body and enabling better results. The natural level of erythrocytes is also not to my advantage, it’s relatively low compared to my competitors and high altitude training helps me compensate this.”
At the moment Mankoč is employed as a top-level athlete at the Ministry of the Interior, but after he finishes his sports career he plans to finish his interrupted study of economics and work in swimming, mostly as a manager and adviser. But he’s not thinking about ending his sports career soon. Nowadays, it takes him longer to recuperate after extreme physical strain than it used to, but on the other hand the years of systematic hard work brought experience he hadn’t had before.
Regardless, his drive to achieve and exceed new milestones is intact – as it was ten or more years ago. “Who knows, I might swim on my fifth Olympic Games 2012 in London … But before that there are many big competitions, European and World Championships …”