Nikola Borić: Living with Nature, Training Kids and Building Mud Houses

Total Croatia News

Photo: Marko Rajković

“If I change the life of one kid for the better, then it was worth it,” claims Nikola

Nikola is not a coach. He is a friend, entertainer, caretaker, teacher, one who consoles everybody, one who stresses himself, one who gets on your nerves… Nobody understands his lifestyle, way of thinking and all find him cool. And he keeps smiling and twirling his stopwatch around his arm, the whole time. I don’t know how to say it, but although we haven’t been with him long, I know he truly influenced me. I don’t know of anyone who convinced me there truly is no mission impossible or no way out in any situation, and a bunch of other things, in any case he succeeded!

These are the words of Borna Katić, 16-year-old member of the Orahovica Swimming Club, the person behind Olympic Day, a competition which took place on September 8, 2017 in Orahovica, with almost 1.000 kids. Third largest trail race in Croatia. In Orahovica where teachers in high school skip flunking pupils in order to maintain the numbers needed to fill three classes and keep their jobs. In Orahovica which hasn’t had any significant sports successes since Croatian independence, and this year already has 22 medals at state championships in several sports.

What happened to Orahovica? Since when does the Swimming Club organise trail races, and its members win medals at swimming, but also triathlon and cycling competitions? The city in the heart of the now hopeless Slavonia, statistically a region with the least number of swimmers in Croatia, from where people emigrate by the bus load, and desperation is in fashion? How come the responsibility for this manifestation lies with children 12 to 16 years old, who managed to organise such a sports spectacle without a single kuna in their budget?

Orahovica met Nikola Borić. A tattooed bald man similar to an extra in Conan. Everyone is looking to get out in any way, and this guy comes in?

A guy from Zaprešić who travelled through Turkey, Ethiopia, world championships and Olympics to Kokočak, a village five kilometres from Orahovica. And began a new life.


“I thought I came here for himself, but today it seems to me something brought me here for these children.”

Police came too, Croatian Television, newspapers. They figured out he used to be wealthy, that he did not lose his money and companies, but gave them away. It was enough for several shows, the circus lasted for a while, people came to observe him as a monkey or a messiah, sent him unwanted pigs, dogs, goats, sprayed holy water on him as in his house of mud they saw Arabic letters and logically concluded the man is possessed. And Nikola kept upgrading his mud house, taming those adopted animals, continuing to be an unusual man.

“I had a wish list: a nature park, no neighbours, a water source, southern slope, certain property size, a vision of a life in nature and I did not settle until I found it.”

And when he figured out that the place he lives in has a heated pool, and almost none of the kids in town do sports, he decided to do something about it. As often is with Nikola, when he starts thinking about something, things happen quickly.

When he gets an idea, people often tell Nikola he is crazy. If only all of us would be so crazy. Be yourself. “Don’t believe television, authorities, state, destiny. Have the balls to do what you want, forget the head screaming that something may not be possible.”

I awoke around 7:30 in the morning in Nikola’s mud and reed hut, a prize for any hardworking piglet.

And there is the piglet, excuse me, two piggies. Maša and Sonja. Maša tries to get in the house, but listens when told “No!” I go out to take a dump in the forest, followed by an entire flock: five goats led by an impressive buck, pigs, a pack of cats and two aggressive geese. Only Nikola’s deaf dog is missing, down in town with Nikola who spent the night at his girlfriend’s.

I met Nikola at some cold duathlon at Jarun, back in 2005, during one of the first encounters with the world of triathlon. Large, muscled triathloner, we didn’t bond, but our paths often crossed, although he hated running and I was primarily a trail runner and never liked the narcissistic triathlon scene. He would occasionally appear at a trekking, or me at a triathlon, but stories of Nikola most often came to me from various women, who sighed after this chunk of a man. At some point he left for Ethiopia, I went to the United States and through social networks I sparingly heard something of Nikola. Of being in Ethiopia and ending up in Slavonia. Of losing it. Gone religious. Living in the forest.

All animals react at once to the sound of Nikola’s car: geese, pigs, goats, cats run down the slope to meet Attila, the deaf American Bulldog and master Nikola who brings them some old bread donated from the local bakery.

“I do nothing for money, I do everything as a volunteer, no money is involved, no bank account, but this may be why people always give me something: food, things, animals… there is some balance there.”

The only animals Nikola makes use of are the goats, which he milks to make cheese. The pigs nudge the dog, and ask for Nikola to scratch their bellies.

“And now imagine I have to slaughter one of them. Not a chance.”

We pass by a 20-metre pond with fish and frogs.

“I meant to make a small pool for training here, so I dug this hole and brought water from the stream. But I still haven’t been able to get rid of the silt.”

This is not an issue at the moment as in town he found a heated 17-metre pool and centred around it a veritable small sports rejuvenation in Orahovica. The Orahovica he has plenty to say about.

“This is a town of ghosts, and it seems only the scum which steals can survive. They’re probably hanging around the Royal bar terrace for coffee now, to be seen, waved at as that fulfils them. And they waste time and steal money from the people through taxes and fees, and get away with it,” was Nikola’s post on Facebook.

Such statements would cost others much more than visits by the police and threats Nikola received. But Nikola does not scare easily, he cares not for the money they tried to bribe him with, and is not violent. He is just loud when he sees stupidity and injustice.

“I saw that I live in a place where kids almost don’t do sports, realised a lot of kids can’t even swim, and the pool is empty.”

“I spoke to the Red Cross Osijek director and Orahovica Mayor and they were on board. At the time there was a circus around me, so everything started quickly. I invited a local reporter, Croatian Television came, I made posters, went from school to school in a 50 kilometre radius. So kids came from Slatina, Kutjevo, Našice, all the way to the Hungarian border.”

“We began with around 300 kids when everything was free at first, now there are 150-200, and only around 70 in the summertime, born between 1999 and 2013.”

“The smallest kids, 3-4 years old, just work on getting over their fear of water and learning to swim. And with older ones we try various sports. They go to trail triathlons, duathlons, mountain races, trails, sprints, cycling. As a swimming club we cannot officially compete in other sports, so we enrolled our kids in TK Swibir (TK Swibir grew out of the ruins of Nikola’s first sports project, Mljet Half Ironman, the most beautiful triathlon ever), AK Agram for athletics, BK Lood for cycling.

“Such a club is very important for Orahovica and the area. Many children want to be in sports, other than handball or football and when the swimming club was founded, many kids were interested. The more sports in town, the better,” says Lana Marinić, one of the most successful members of the club, a 13-year-old who competes evenly with older juniors.

After working with top athletes, such as world boxing champion Stjepan Božić, Deriba Merga and Dire Tune who won the Boston Marathon, Elvan Abeylegesse who won medals at European and world championships, Nikola now works with kids from Orahovica.

“I’m not used to it yet. It’s a pleasure as the progress is large and quick, while with professional sports everything moves slowly and depends on a bunch of small factors. Until a race stars there is no way to tell how it will go, even through practice was good and the condition is there – it depends on if the flight was good, if you slept well, what the food was like, the score depends on many things. And with kids there is sizeable progress each week.”

“Everything is done through games so kids don’t even realise they are training. And then they go to a competition and cannot believe they are the best. What coaches often don’t understand is that kids need to enjoy in order to stay in sports until they are seniors and then they work for the score and real work begins, not at 6 or 12 or 17 years, then everything should be fun. And it’s easy to get kids to play around so they don’t even realise what’s going on. For example, to increase VO2 max we play underwater hockey for an hour with a small chip and kids love it. They think: ‘if I come up for air I won’t score,’ and that actually develops the maximum air intake. For reaction speed and sprints we play other games.”

“Coaches burden 6-year-old kids with specific sports techniques and overly serious practices, and then they wonder why kids are leaving sports. This is the Balkans: we have good cadets and juniors, pressure them and they either get hurt or run from sports. This has decimated individual sports. Without seniors kids have no idols, and without idols there are no juniors. Everything is connected.”

“This year we had 22 kids on pedestals at state championships in mountain running, athletics, sprint, trail, swimming, triathlon, duathlon, aquathlon, mountain cycling.”

“Sport is great to teach kids how effort gives results and how talent without work is nothing. I would say 80% work and only 20% talent. Two excellent examples of talented and hardworking athletes are Lana Marinić and Borna Katić. Lana is 13 and an equal in running and cycling with juniors, and Borna, a boy who did not know how to swim, after a year swims 26:90 in 50 metres. Whatever he picks up he does great. Triathlon team, mountain running, sprints, race organisation. The race with 1.000 participants is his idea, his initiative is to open an athletics stadium. He put together a group of kids aged 12 to 15 and did everything with them. I only helped out when they needed something. Kids only need to be told they can do everything and then suddenly they do.”

“From the very beginning we’ve had no financial support either from local administration or the sports community, so we are self-sustainable. And in fact we need no one, although it would be nice to get some help, as better results would be easier, joining some races would be easier, but for the state level we are self-sufficient.”

“Before the last local elections HDZ was in power for 12 years, arrogant local sheriffs who thought they would be in power forever. When they did not like me voicing the non-transparent and biased funding they tried to shut me up with awards and money. They offered me 60.000 kunas for the club to shut up, and I said we did not want the money in that way, but with clear criteria in accordance with the law on sports.”

“In the beginning we wanted to prove to the local community ourselves and the club, as nobody believed me, they thought everything was lies. And while we didn’t make any fuss all was great. But after spending a year of our time into organising races, investing in promotion and proving ourselves, we expected some financing from the town, but I guess we should have joined HDZ, and I am not politically oriented.”

“Beyond membership fees, we are financed by private donors, more or less parents of members, successful entrepreneurs, and we have some donations from Austria as well. Word is out that we do good work, that kids are happy so everyone helps. It is a great pleasure to see the community has recognised our work and supports us, recognising something this good.”

“New administration is here and they included us in the local sports programme. But we are still without financing, as I don’t want to take any more money until the sports community arranges everything in line with the law on sports and funds appropriated according to the Olympic Committee. Not by political connections but by results.”

“Orahovica is no longer a lost cause in Croatia with just an amateur football club and a professional alcoholics club, but a town with top sports at state level,” said Nikola in a Facebook post.

This experiment by the crazy Nikola has opened jobs. But there is a lack of coaches?

“It’s not normal, I’m always looking to hire someone, but no one will come and work. After a tender for a physical education teacher I got the contacts of all who applied. I called 21 of them and asked if they want to work. I did not tell them the salary is 5.600 kunas, as I wanted primarily someone who wants the job. In the end a girl was interested, but she also went to work at some school part time for a lot less money. So I only have one other coach working alongside me.”

“I have no dream, no plans, as I don’t think it all depends on me. When I plan something it never turns out that way. I did not dream we would have state champions already this year, and there’s 22 of them. I just work, now I plan to buy an altitude tent so we don’t have to go to altitude training, we will also use it for recovery. I don’t think too far ahead. Who knows where I’ll end up. Neither I nor Zorana (his girlfriend, English teacher in the Orahovica school) are tied to this place so I can’t tell. It would be great for the kids to take all this over.”

“An athletics stadium, pool, children’s playground or skate park is not necessary for this town. Orahovica needs jobs and factory directors who are primarily human beings with empathy for others, something they teach you each Sunday in church and something you recall sometimes outside that building,” from another of Nikola’s Facebook posts.

And now for something completely different.

The Nikola Borić who, instead of kids in Orahovica, coaches Hertha footballer Srđan Lakić, world boxing champion Stjepan Božić, swimmer Gordan Kožulj, Elvan Abeylegesse, Deriba Merga, Dire Tune, Teybu Erkesso. The Nikola whose protégés win world championships, world marathons, Boston, Houston, Istanbul, the Nikola Borić as the main fitness coach of the Turkish and Azerbaijani athletic teams at the Olympics in London 2012.

That story begins with a boy cycling to flying school. 35 kilometres in each direction from his native Zaprešić to Velika Gorica and back, each day. One day he came across “Third Sport,” a magazine run by Daniel Lacko, the good spirit of the Croatian outdoor scene, when the outdoor movement was as exotic as Burundi. He read an article about the first Croatian Ironman Marijan Pedišić and decided to become a triathloner. He began to train, found books on training, talked to various athletes and became a self-taught coach.

Already a coach with two European golds, he enrolled in the Faculty of Kinesiology due to the Law on Sports.

“At the faculty I found professors still living in the 1960s and teaching people the Russian training style. I refused to take exams for such stupidity not used anywhere anymore and told them the way things are now. So I did not pass exams. In the end I received the athletics coach title from the Novi Sad Sports Institute.”

“Neither Kostelić nor Vlašić have diplomas, the diplomas are pointless. I have nothing against coaches with higher education, but I go berserk when someone completes a stupid course at some school or that faculty and then thinks they can attack self-taught coaches, without any practical knowledge of their own.”

“The world is moving to the alternative which no one teaches. For example, we worked a lot with bioenergy and mediation for recovery. And the food pyramid, calories, stupidity. That amount, 2.000 calories for basal metabolism is total stupidity. Just look at Ethiopians running fast kilometres, and they eat nothing compared to us. And they are faster and more durable than any white man.”

Time chips took Nikola into the world?

“Yes, it all began in 2003 with the Mljet Half Ironman which I wanted to elevate to a global level, so I found partners and we got a hold of time chips.”

Partners went greedy, threw Nikola out, and he went into the time chips business and training.

“I don’t hold a grudge, I can shake their hand and look them in the eye; I still work with them, my children are today licensed in the club we established together (TK Swibir). They have a hard enough time living with themselves as is.”

His first bigger success came as the fitness coach of boxer Stjepan Božić in 2005 with the World Champion title in the super medium category by WBF. And the chip business took him to Turkey then.

“Aim high, you may miss the target, but at least you won’t shoot yourself in the leg.” – Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles in Love.

“I worked for a while as a kids coach in TK Zrinski and had that time chip business on the side, ChampStat. As Croatia was too small a market, I sent offers everywhere and the Istanbul Marathon contacted me. An offer for 30.000 euros. We flew to Istanbul for a huge presentation which turned out to be a comedy. Our time mat folded, sensors broke, I had to press the beeper when the Istanbul Mayor ran over the mat with the chip. Then the organisers asked me if I could do splits every 5 kilometres and the start of the 15km race. I said of course I could, although I did not have the equipment for it. To turn them away I told them it would cost 100.000 euros.”

“But we shook hands then. I went pale, scared. In one month I had to find 2.5 tonnes of equipment, I needed 26 people in the end. There was nothing there, and we had to cover the entire width of the Istanbul Bridge, 18 metres of mats for each of the separate starts at 15km and 42 km and then splits. 6 vans and 6 trailers of equipment.”

“After the Ljubljana Marathon we picked up some mats there and the entire caravan headed out to Istanbul; some by vans, some by plane, some by train. We got the mats from Italy, Slovenia, Hungary. But everything turned out great and the next day I opened a Turkish company for time measurement with Munir Yaras, then director of the Istanbul Marathon.”

How did Nikola replace Turkish coffee with Ethiopian, the original one?

“Munir kept introducing me to everyone, so after the 2009 Istanbul Marathon I ended up talking to a manager, Lebanese with an American passport, Hussain Makke. I told him: ‘If you want your guys to run the world record, you have to take me.’ And he said: ‘When can you fly for Addis?’”

“He was off to the Houston Marathon the next day, called me from there and said he bought me a ticket to Ethiopia and would be in Zagreb the next day to arrange everything. And he came to me in Pisarovina. Asked me how much money I would ask. I said: ‘Three months for free, and when you see the results I will tell you how much you will pay me.’ We shook hands, he called his secretary to arrange everything, and I was off to Ethiopia the next day. His guy met me at the airport and I wondered what now.”

“There was no training system there. Hussain had two buses which picked up 120 running hopefuls each day. They took them out of town onto a road to Kenya and each day let them run, picked up by buses as they crashed and the last one standing was to report to the manager. Whoever finished best on Friday, went to the race on Saturday. So my results came. But in fact it was irrelevant who I took to the race. I had 22 guys who ran the half-marathon between 1:04:50 and 1:06 and some even faster runners.”


“So, Hussein Makke worked for Nike and controlled Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco and Russia. His marathons during my time were Houston, Dubai, Boston, Paris. Some marathons were held by Nike, others by Adidas and there was no way to throw in someone with the wrong shoes into the race. You watch the race on television and wonder who will win, and we arranged everything in advance: who will win and which time he will run. Everything is known in advance.”

“And it looks like this: the marathon director, manager Hussein and me as coach meet. The two of them choose the runners and close the elite section, and then ask me for our running times, I say 2:08 for example, and that’s it. Hussain has me with 20 Ethiopians, another coach in Kenya with 15 Kenyans, a Moroccan coach with 7 Moroccans, and some Russians on the side. In any case Hussain takes 15% from the top 10, in Istanbul that’s around 300.000 euros, plus elite start – a commission from the money runners get just to participate. He doesn’t care if one of them snaps, as another one will replace him and he will make the same money. So we use pacemakers until the 30th kilometre, pick them up, they all run together until the 35th, and then the one we agreed on moves ahead. And the audience thinks what an exciting race it is. Who will win? Who will win? And everything is arranged, we are in fact selling you Nike over television. My share annually was 50.000 euros and two bags of Nike equipment.”

“Records are also rigged. In 2012 at practice Elvan Abeylegesse surpassed the European 5km record. And I called the manager to find a race to run the record. We called Stockholm, Diamond League, and they answered the race is closed. Stockholm is held by Adidas, and Zurich, where she ran, by Nike, and there isn’t a manager who can push you in if you are wearing the wrong shoes. You cannot break a record where and when you want. Stockholm did not want someone in Nike to run a record. Her condition fell, the record was lost.”

“The same way my runners could not run Berlin as it is held by Adidas. Same story with London. Just check who the main sponsor is and which shoes are best in the race. And everything will be clear. Every marathon is like that. If the number says Nike, if the balloon is Nike, then the Nike runner wins. In the Diamond League as well. Everything is a scam. You live in an illusion that there is an actual race going on and the winner is unknown.”

“I worked with three Nike managers, each of them has 200 Ethiopians, 200 Kenyans, 50 Moroccans and 20 Russians and a few Somalis or Italians with whom they close the elite section of any marathon. Hussain Mekke, Gianni Demadonna, Jos Hermens and a few more I did not work with. 5-6 managers are in charge of the entire athletics world, they split up the main marathons and earn millions. I lost it when I realised everything is rigged. I had enough of that bullshit. In the end I realised I was not a coach but a Nike salesman.”

“It’s all a game. And the managers even steal from runners, take their equipment and money, up to 70% commission from awards. They say they must pay taxes. And these poor kids from Africa never heard of taxes. On the other hand, if that manager did not show up there, that man would still be living in the middle of nowhere and walking 20 kilometres in dust each day just to get to water, and now he is building a hotel in Addis Abeba.”

“There are hundreds of Ethiopians and Kenyans at a marathon and if they were to let them all into the Olympics they would fill all pedestals. In Ethiopia if the Amhara tribe is in power, then three Amhara are sent, if Oromo is in power, then three from Oromo go, and they often don’t take the fastest ones. And then there is a farce when a white man wins a medal, when in fact there are a hundred faster runners in the world than him. Nonsense. And those from other states winning medals are mostly runners bought to represent a nation, like Somali Mo Farah for Great Britain. Elvan Abeylegesse was bought like that, manager came, gave the parents 50.000 euros, a Turkish passport and bye.”

When Elvan is mentioned many will scream doping. “I don’t understand what the problem with doping is. What are you talking about? Separate professional sports from recreational. There is no professional sports without doping. I find it terrible when uneducated journalists write about doping, mentioning various substances and then some kid looks for that substance to be the best and ends up with a fake and poisoned. People don’t understand doping doesn’t exist because of athletes, but because of spectators who want to see a spectacle. They all want world records, a Tour de France with 3 Alpine ascents with an average speed of 48. Athletes take drugs because of us following sports.”

“For example, last year pharmacists developed AICAR, still being tested on animals in Australia. AICAR completely increases stamina; at the genetic level it changes white muscle fibre into red and this will lead to marathons under two hours, world records in all stamina sports. And the World Anti-doping Association still cannot get to AICAR as the medicine is not on the market. The doctor of Gianni Demadonna in Kenyan camps uses items WADA has never heard of.”

“But of course this is not the reason why Kenyans and Ethiopians are so much better than us. They are born at an altitude of 2.500 metres, have superior anaerobic capacity, heart, blood system and more importantly, superior extremities for running, two centimetres longer than ours on average. They practically have no muscle. My masseur used to say ‘there is nothing for me to massage here,’ just tendons which don’t use up oxygen; they are like a bow and arrow, just bone and tendons, they don’t need doping to run faster than the whites. They don’t have our huge muscles which we spend oxygen on. There is no white man who can run what they can.”

So professional sport is bullshit. Is there a solution?

“Sport is great for kids as they see systematic work brings results. But professional sports are something else. They should completely separate recreational and professional sports. I find it toughest when I have to explain to kids what things are like in professional sports. Business, rigging. And then they ask me why I lost it and got out of professional sports. I was sickened by it.”

Nikola had a contract with the Turkish and Azerbaijani athletics team until 2020 and a successful time chip business in two countries, left everything and came to Orahovica where he is finishing up his second house of mud and straw, adopts unwanted animals, teaches kids sports, but also that they can do anything, that it’s no problem for a 16-year-old to organise a race with 1.000 participants, they only have to believe in themselves.


“If I change the life of one kid for the better, then it was worth it.”

“Everyone laughed when I told them Orahovica will have a swimming club, they laughed when I said they will have excellent athletes, they laughed when I said we will have state champions, they laughed when I said we would perform at European and world championships and they laugh when I say that Orahovica kids will be at the Olympics and study at prestigious universities in America.”

“I don’t find any of it funny, nor entertaining. This is reality when you put your heart into the youth of kids,” wrote Nikola on Facebook.

Since the time we talked, Nikola’s kids won two more medals at the aquathlon state championship. The Orahovica sports renaissance continues…

Photographs: Marko Rajković, Alexandar Ortynski, Nikola Borić, Marijan Škripač, Žana Rajić and personal archive of Nikola Borić.

Translated from Ž


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