By Katie Fallon
At 28, Nem Pavlovic would normally have a full life working as a firefighter and raising his 2-year-old daughter.
But add to that the responsibility of training for your home country’s Olympic triathlon team, and the Sandy Springs firefighter is in a whole new ballgame.
Pavlovic was born in Belgrade, Serbia, which was formerly known as Yugoslavia. When he was 8 years old, Pavlovic and his mother immigrated to Canada. However, a bulk of his 20 years in America has been spent in Atlanta, where he attended both Dunwoody and Chamblee high schools.
Pavlovic only started training for triathlons about three years ago following a long career in competitive swimming.
“I was actually a swimmer for 15 years,” he said. “I swam with the Serbian national team. I actually had Olympic qualifying times, but ended up having some things happen and getting injured right before the Olympics. As a swimmer, I actually got to a very high level and competed in the World Championships.”
A single father to daughter Kira, Pavlovic said his dream to go to the Olympics began when he was a small child. Rather than seeing competitive sports as a profession, Pavlovic said he considers his quest for the Olympics as a connection to history.
“I associate it more with the old Olympics, the ancient Olympics, the celebration of sport and the pursuit of personal achievement,” he said.
But there came a time when Pavlovic had to choose between swimming and his work, and in the end, the latter won out. Over the last nine years, Pavlovic has worked as a firefighter-paramedic. He worked for the Alpharetta Fire Department before coming to Station 3 in Sandy Springs almost three months ago.
Pavlovic, though, never relinquished the reins on his dream.
“I stayed very, very fit, but the whole time as I did this job and I worked, I kind of sensed if I didn’t chase my dream all the way and fully, that I would never be satisfied with life,” he said.
Pavlovic did not get into triathlons until about three years ago when he contacted an old swim coach, who in turn suggested Pavlovic tackle triathlons because of his background in swimming.
“To be successful in the triathlon at the Olympic and world class level, you have to come from an unbelievable swimming background because swimming takes decades to perfect,” Pavlovic said.
After Pavlovic began training for and competing in triathlons, he got a call from the Serbian national team, who invited him to compete for the small, eastern European country. The triathlete said he is able to compete for his home country because many times, Olympic athletes compete for the country in which they were born, not where they live. In fact, he said many of his Serbian teammates live in warmer climates in countries like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Pavlovic said he wasn’t quite ready talent-wise to compete for his adopted nation.
“Technically, I could have competed for the United States or Canada, however, in order to compete on the national team there, I would have had to be a gold medal shoo-in,” he said “Right now, I’m not quite at that level.”
Now that Pavlovic has qualified for the Serbian national team, he is concentrating on his individual qualification for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. To do so, he must accumulate a certain number of points, rather than achieve a specific time in an Olympic-length event.
“The triathlon is a little bit different than most of the other sports, which are based on times so as soon as you make a time, you go to the Olympics,” he said. “The triathlon is the most difficult sport to qualify for the Olympics. You don’t just go if you’re the best in the region or the best in the country. You have to collect points over a series of years.”
The Olympic triathlon, which in dwarfed in popularity by the more well-known Ironman Triathlon championships held in Kona, Hawaii, includes a 1.5-kilometer swim, 40-kilometer cycling course and a 10-kilometer run. The event equates to swimming almost one mile, cycling just under 25 miles and running 6.2 miles.
But Pavlovic will have a few more hurdles to overcome before Beijing. He has qualified to compete in his sport’s 2008 world championships as well as the European championships, which will be held in Portugal.
At the same time, however, he also has his full-time job with the Sandy Springs Fire Rescue Department. Though his days are filled with duties for both endeavors, Pavlovic said his fellow firefighters have been very supportive.
“This is not an overnight process. It’s something you do as a lifestyle,” he said. “The firefighters have actually integrated into my whole training process because we have to work as a team and because we live and eat together. I cook very, very healthy. All the guys now eat kind of like how I eat in order to help me out so we don’t have to cook two different meals.”
Similarly, when Pavlovic arrives at Station 3, across the street from Riverwood High School, he often comes early in order to fit in a 12-mile run or a cycling session on his stationary bike. In both instances, Pavlovic said his co-workers will often sit and cheer him on.
“What’s really great about work here is the fire department is extremely supportive of what I’m trying to do,” he said.
The support from the city’s fire rescue department also reaches all the way to the top.
“We’re all very proud of him, and we’re going to support him,” said Fire Chief Jack McElfish. “We wish him well, of course. It’s a tremendous personal challenge, as well as a professional.”
McElfish said when his department hired Pavlovic, he did not realize the extent of the young man’s extracurricular endeavors. It just so happens that the department had an opening at Station 3, which has nearby access to an Olympic track at Riverwood as well as trails.
“We’re proud of all of our young people,” McElfish said.
Something else to be proud of is the training schedule Pavlovic maintains on both work and off days. On days he works his 24-hour shift at the fire station, Pavlovic said he wakes up at 3 a.m. to put in a swim session of about three hours. When he gets to work, he’ll then precede his shift with a 20k run. Throughout the week, he will also attend a variety of yoga, weight training and acupuncture and chiropractor sessions.
On days he does not work, Pavlovic will begin training about an hour after he gets off his fire department shift. He will then train nonstop for seven hours. His swimming often takes him to the Dynamo Club, and his cycling is often done in the mountains of North Georgia.
Pavlovic said the key to all of his training is mental toughness. “It’s like 90 percent mental,” he said. “It’s all about being able to survive training day in and day out. Your body kind of gets numb to the fact that you’re putting it through all this.”
Pavlovic said he would eventually like to train for the Hawaiian Ironman.