Eye on the prize

National Player of the Year Ivan Rackov hates being slighted. His thirst to prove himself carried him from Serbia to become one of America’s best athletes.

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Edwin Cho/Staff

It all came down to a rule.

In 2005, when Ivan Rackov was 16, the Water Polo Association of Serbia reconfigured its age groups for tournament eligibility, and by technical error Rackov’s generation didn’t fit with any eligible group. For the next year, Rackov’s club team didn’t compete.

Since his first after-school practice at age six, Rackov had been hooked on water polo’s nonstop pace and rough competition. Now a new rulebook made it impossible for him to play the sport he hoped to base a future around.

“I thought, ‘That’s the end of it,’” he says. “I couldn’t see myself playing. When you start playing water polo, especially at that high level, you always imagine yourself being professional, going to the Olympics. That year, I couldn’t see myself anywhere.”

Rackov possesses a Spartanlike efficiency when accomplishing his goals. The senior Cal attacker’s competitive streak and his drive don’t stay in the pool; they spill over into every aspect of his life. Like an opposing defender threatening to block a shot, any hurdle is swiftly assessed and overturned.

Rackov contacted Andrija Vasiljevic, a former member of his club team, and boldly relayed his new plan: He wanted to study in the U.S., and he wanted Vasiljevic to help. A recent graduate of Cal, Vasiljevic put Rackov in touch with the Bears’ coach, Kirk Everist.

As luck would have it, Cal embarked on a European exhibition tour in the summer of 2006, and the squad was stopping in Belgrade to play the Serbian junior national team.

Rackov was a part of that team. Everist would get the chance to see this intriguing recruit.

But last-minute changes left Rackov out of the lineup. Both Everist and Rackov suspect that the change was intentional: The Serbian coaches purposely cut Rackov because they were afraid to lose him to a collegiate water polo career in America.

The coaches were right to fear the loss of Rackov. He was small, and based on size alone, he was often overlooked. But his talent is natural, and he devotes passion and persistence to cultivating it. He’s got an intiutive sense of where the ball will be. He’s the player that opponents most often try (and most often fail) to shut down. He would be a highly coveted asset for any American collegiate program.

But he hadn’t proved his worth in front of the Bears, and now he never would. Cal’s calls and emails stopped, and Rackov’s ego took a beating.

“We just got a little spooked,” Everist says. “How good can this guy be? At his position there are a lot of people. Everyone is a right-handed attacker. We just thought it was better to go in a different direction.”

A year later, at the 2007 Junior National Championships in Long Beach, Calif., Everist saw Rackov competing with the Serbian team. He finally understood the impact Rackov could have on Cal, a team fresh off back-to-back NCAA titles.

Everist came up to Rackov after his game and sat down next to him on the bleachers. He reintroduced himself, although it wasn’t necessary; the 18-year-old remembered him perfectly. Everist then asked if Rackov was still interested in playing for Cal.

Rackov remembered the sudden end to communication. He remembered how this man had refused to take a risk on him. He turned to Everist and said one word: “No.” Then he got up and walked away.

***

Everist refused to accept the rebuff. “I’m just as stubborn as he is,” Everist says. The coaches continued to send Rackov emails explaining their renewed interest, but Rackov was no longer interested. They had their chance, and they blew it.

Fortunately for the Bears, his mother persuaded her son to reconsider his options.

“She told me, ‘Don’t ever close a door behind you. You never know what’s going to happen,’” he says.

He didn’t close the door, but he still didn’t see himself playing at Cal. Rackov was one of the few athletes predicted to make it big from VK Partizan, the premier league in Serbia. Partizan is the inside track to a professional career, and Rackov was poised to take that track.

But plans to play for the first team of Partizan began to deteriorate. Once again, Rackov was facing a future without competition, and a collegiate career at a respected university sounded more appealing.

The only drawback was that if Rackov chose to go to America, he permanently jeopardized any hope of playing for the national team. Serbia considers American water polo an inferior version of the sport; fouls are rampantly called and leave little room for roughhousing, and more time on the shot clock leads to less control on drives.

“It was pretty much choosing between playing professionally and coming here,” Rackov says. “But I was always thinking, you know, ‘What’s going to happen to me if I get hurt?’ I really don’t want to drive a cab for the rest of my life.”

There is a stark reality behind the words. What if water polo doesn’t pan out? He’s too much of a perfectionist to leave his life solely to dreams.

Everist describes Rackov as a chess player always thinking three steps ahead. It was back to the chess board, where every move and decision was black and white. Choose your destiny, or leave it to someone else.

“If water polo happens, it happens,” Rackov says. “But it’s not the end of the world. School is more important than sport.”

So Rackov came to Cal and made Spieker Aquatics Center his new training ground.

***

As a true freshman, Rackov was fourth on the team in goals. The next year he rocketed to first. And stayed there. Last year, he paced the Bears in goals, assists and steals, exploiting the smallest signal or movement from an opponent and translating it into his own success.

The risk to come to Cal has certainly paid off. Rackov is one of the most respected and most feared athletes in collegiate water polo, and he’s currently the second-best scorer in Cal history. Last year, he won both the National Player of the Year title and the Peter J. Cutino award, the highest honor bestowed upon a collegiate water polo athlete.

Yet he didn’t feel his performance in 2010 deserved the recognition, simply because his team lost the NCAA Championship to USC. He would gladly trade the awards for a national title to share with his teammates.

Rackov has never regretted his decision to come to Cal — “not even 1 percent,” he says. But he won’t consider his college career a success unless he wins the national championship.

The last time Cal won the title was in 2007, a year before Rackov came to Berkeley. He’s been grasping at the ghost of that ring for three years now. This is his last chance to win. His last chance to topple the Trojans from their mighty pedestal. His last chance to prove that Cal was the right choice; not to himself, but rather to those watching him.

Rackov has no idea what comes next. After he graduates in December, he will try for a spot on the Serbian national team. The Olympics are still in his dreams, and within his grasp. But it’s not set in stone. It’s not up to him.

“Sometimes people look at him and underestimate him, as I did,” Everist says. “That’s a mistake. At some point someone is going to give him a shot. He’s got to take advantage of that.”

If the last six years are any indication, Rackov has already proven he can.

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