In essence, Anastasia Bogdanovski just wanted a souvenir. She got to live out a dream.
The northern New Jersey native and swimming standout felt a strong connection with her parents' home country of Macedonia and wanted to display national pride in and around the pool. So, during her senior year of high school, Bogdanovski asked her uncle, who lives in the Balkan nation, if he could procure an official swim team cap.
Her uncle reached out to the coach for the national team, but instead of chatting about swim caps, the conversation quickly turned to Anastasia. The coach inquired about her sports background and interest in swimming for the country.
The two quickly got in touch, and Bogdanovski sent him her times at a recent 50-meter meet—which, it turns out, would have been good enough for a Macedonian national record.
"We started talking back and forth, emails and phone calls. It just sort of happened," says Bogdanovski, a sophomore at Johns Hopkins majoring in public health studies. "I had been thinking about swimming for Macedonia for quite a while. It was a dream. I just didn't know how to make that initial contact."
She obviously made a good impression.
Less than a year later, Bogdanovski represented Macedonia in a Grand Prix Series event in Indianapolis and just after graduating high school swam in the USA YMCA Nationals, where she logged in the Macedonian women's record in the 50-meter freestyle. During her freshman year at Johns Hopkins, she competed in Eastern European regional meets, held in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, and the Gulf Coast Swim Team qualifying trials, where she earned another Macedonian national record, this time in the 100-meter long course freestyle.
Last summer, Bogdanovski swam for Macedonia at the European Swimming Championships held in Debrecen, Hungary. She participated in December in the FINA World Swimming Championships in Istanbul, where she broke Macedonian records in the 50- and 100-meter short course races, and is on track to swim in the 2013 World Swimming Championships in Barcelona.
For the formerly shy and awkward Bogdanovski, who almost gave up swimming, these are special times.
For Johns Hopkins, Bogdanovski has helped lead the varsity women's team to a No. 1 ranking in a national poll. She had the fastest time in Division III in the 100-meter freestyle in 2012 and recently helped the team win the Gettysburg Invitational title and earn a spot in the NCAA Division III Championships, to be held in Texas in March.
Bogdanovski attributes much of her success to the guidance of her Johns Hopkins coaches and a renewed focus on technique.
"Last year, I told myself I wanted to be fast. This year, I said I want to be faster," Bogdanovski says. "I know my turns could use a lot of work. My starts. My underwaters. Stroke technique. Pretty much everything [laughs]."
She calls herself her worst critic.
"After every single race, before the coaches even say anything, I start to list off the things I've done wrong," she says. "Someone videotapes our swims. As I watch myself, I pick apart everything."
Johns Hopkins swimming head coach George Kennedy says that Bogdanovski has come into her own this fall. He attributes her struggles freshman year to trying too hard. "I told her to swim at 95 percent, to focus on lengthening her stoke, and it clicked," he says. "Trying to swim fast was ruining her technique. Now she knows relaxed speed."
Bogdanovski started swimming at an early age, but only recreationally. She took up horseback riding and excelled, ranking 10th nationally in pony jumping in her age group. But riding took its toll physically, she says, as she broke two bones during training.
She joined her high school swim team her freshman year but quit after one season.
"I was really bad. I was short, only 4 feet 11, and I don't think I was motivated yet," she says.
Bogdanovski says that close friends convinced her not to give up. She rejoined the team her sophomore year.
"My coaches made me love swimming again. I steadily got better," she says. What also helped was a growth spurt. She shot up eight inches during her high school years.
Both of Bogdanovski's parents, who met in college, were born in Macedonia, a successor state of the former Yugoslavia that declared its independence in 1991. Her father, a software engineer, came to the United States for work. The two later married and moved to America permanently.
A dual citizen, Bogdanovski visits Macedonia at least once a year, as all her relatives outside her immediate family still reside in the country.
"I love it there," she says. "It's a beautiful place. Lots of lakes, castles, culture, and history. We are proud of ourselves. There's a strong sense of nationalism."
She describes herself as "somewhat fluent" in Macedonian and has a hint of a Slavic accent. "But I'm still awkward when speaking. I'm always afraid I'll use the wrong word. I get made fun of by my Macedonia teammates," she says.
Since her first few races as a Macedonian swimmer took place in the United States, she didn't meet her national coach until last summer. Up until then, he would watch live streams of her competitions and throw in some input, she says.
Although she holds several national records, she deflects much praise for her international accomplishments. "We're a small country," she says.
Being a swimmer for a nation not well-steeped in the sport has its peculiarities, Bogdanovski says. She mostly trains alone, receiving instructions from both her Macedonia and Johns Hopkins coaches. She was just one of three swimmers flying out to Istanbul for the World Championships last month, and the only female.
"Swimming is not as big a focus there as it is for other nations. We normally finish toward the end," she says. "But swimming for Macedonia has made me stronger. I knew I was doing it for my country, which I love. I feel like I'm helping putting our name out there. Not many people even know we exist."
Bogdanovski hopes to change the culture of swimming in her adopted home country. As for Barcelona in 2013, just being invited would be a "huge deal," she says.
She says that her first time on the international stage was daunting. She recalls huge crowds, omnipresent photographers, and underwater robotic cameras that took some getting used to.
"I try to block it all out now," she says. "I focus on the water and try to be in my own little world. I always get nervous before I swim, so I often need to be left alone. I jump around a lot and listen to music in my headphones."
Kennedy says that he has watched Bogdanovski's confidence slowly grow. Her hard work, he says, has paid off.
"I don't think she's ever missed a practice," he says. "I think great athletes continue to improve. They see their shortcomings and just work harder. She also takes responsibility. If things don't go her way, she doesn't blame anyone or anything, like the conditions in the pool. She wonders what she can do better and what to work on. She's very positive."
She's also a presence.
"She is constantly talking. I love her energy," he says. "She really cares about her teammates, and she's comfortable in her own skin. She's certainly not afraid to say what is on her mind, whether it's a test score she just got or something minor. She's definitely earned the respect of her teammates in that she found a way to get fast."
How much faster can she get? Bogdanovski is determined to find out. Her long-term goal is to compete for Macedonia in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"I missed out on London because I basically found out too late about what I had to do to qualify for the team," she says. "I'm not making that mistake again."
And it all started with a phone call for a swim cap. Wonder what would have happened if she had asked for a riding helmet?