Spirit, life and laughter — Mima Mirkovic is Cal volleyball’s own comedian

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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Serbia, spring 1999. The Kosovo War is in full throttle, with no light at the end of the tunnel visible. Families are full of fear as they learn of worse news each day. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombs Yugoslavia, killing approximately 1,000 people.

To say uncertainty clouds the air is an understatement. Yet people flock to cafes and dance, still full of spirit, life and laughter as they attempt to escape their worries.

While the times were dark, Serbians found bits of brightness. Lisa and Alex Mirkovic welcomed a light — who would never cease to shine — into their lives that same spring. They named her Mima.

The night that the Chinese embassy was bombed in Belgrade, Serbia — just two months after Mima was born — the new parents packed a small bag, brought $500 and took a bus to Budapest. From there, the family flew to Los Angeles and concluded the longest journey of their lives, arriving at Lisa’s brother’s house in Huntington Beach.

The Mirkovics quickly made the best out of their situation. Just a few years after the move, Mima’s younger brother Nic was born, she was taking ballet classes, and the family was starting to settle down in the United States.

It was this family that Mima Mirkovic was born into — one that overcame adversity while never losing its zest for life, despite trying times.

Although Mirkovic’s ballet days didn’t last long, dancing was her first exposure to the world of athletics, and once she entered it, she never wanted to leave.

“If you see her picture when she was a ballerina with her little ponytail, she was the cutest little ballerina,” Lisa says. “Then she started soccer, and then volleyball and then at 12 or 13 she had to pick — soccer or volleyball.”

While sports began to consume life out of the house, the inside of the Mirkovic household wasn’t all that different. There was always an element of chaos at the family’s residence as voices called out over the sound of tennis, Pac-12 volleyball, stand-up comedy on the TV or music playing over the speakers.

“It’s rambunctious,” Mirkovic says. “We’re either yelling at each other or laughing with each other. We love watching ‘Comedy Central Roasts.’ Anything that makes us laugh. Anything lighthearted. I don’t like serious stuff.”

Whether the family is joking about Mima trying to replicate one of her dad’s famous dishes without burning down the kitchen or laughing at their favorite comedians — Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher — the Mirkovic home is constantly full of humor.

As Mima ditched soccer to become more involved with volleyball, she carried the happy, lighthearted nature that characterizes her home with her, weaving humor into her game.

While playing at Laguna Beach Volleyball Club, Mirkovic decided to challenge herself at the next level, getting involved with USA Volleyball.

“It wasn’t ever like, ‘Oh, I just want to get into the USA pipeline and be an Olympian,’ or ever like, ‘I’m doing this so colleges can see me,’ because I didn’t really understand how recruiting worked,” Mirkovic says. “It was more like, ‘Oh, I’m pretty good at this level — could I be even better and challenge myself at the next level?’”

Mirkovic found that USA Volleyball did challenge her further. As she made the A1 High Performance team in Florida, Mirkovic qualified to play with some of the best high school players in the nation.

Neither she nor her family was fully expecting that result. After all, Mima was — and still is, at 5’10” — several inches shorter than her fellow outside hitters.

“I remember her calling me and saying, ‘Mom, I beat a bunch of 6’4” girls for this spot. My stats were great, I was jumping,’” Lisa says. “She loves proving people wrong in so many things. She just believed in herself. She believed she can do it.”

Not long after proving herself among the nation’s best, Mima suffered a torn ACL early during her high school years. But like her parents a decade and a half earlier, Mirkovic refused to dwell too long on the uncontrollable and took things into her own hands, completing months of rehabilitation to get back into both beach and indoor competition.

Back on the sand, Mirkovic began working with Jon Aharoni, the head coach of the USA Beach Volleyball Youth National Team, and partnered with now-Stanford junior Kathryn Plummer.

“When she first walked up to the court, she was just coming off her knee injury,” Aharoni says. “Really finding her voice and her autonomy was exactly what I thought she needed, and that’s where I pushed her. She needed to realize how freeing herself up to let her talents through really brought the best out of that athlete.”

As new partners, Mirkovic and Plummer quickly found a rhythm that allowed them to accomplish the unimaginable.

Coming off Mirkovic’s injury and with just a few months of practice together under their belts, the dynamic duo qualified for the U18 World Championships and didn’t stop there. The pair kept pushing past its opponents, refusing to fall until encountering Brazil’s Eduarda Santos Lisboa and Ana Patricia Silva Ramos, the defending world champions.

Mirkovic and Plummer left the tournament representing the United States as bronze medalists on the world stage. They’d repeat themselves the following year.

“Her going up against the top professional Brazilian player … coming off a completely blown-out knee where a couple months before she really wasn’t prepared to even play, and then taking a game off of them and blasting them in the face and putting the fear of God in them, their coaches and the entire beach volleyball community — you have to have a certain kind of crazy to even go for it in that way,” Aharoni says. “She just has that. She has that killer assassin instinct that she’s going to get it done.”

Although college caused the two athletes to physically separate, Aharoni’s lessons, complementing her family’s love for humor, have stuck with Mirkovic throughout her career.

“We talked about in pressure moments, laugh,” Aharoni says.

Years have passed since Aharoni spoke those words, but Mirkovic laughs every day as she eases the stresses tied to competing in the Pac-12 — a conference many doubted she could ever play in as an outside hitter.

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

Karen Chow/Senior Staff

“I watched a lot of Pac-12 volleyball growing up because our family friend played for UCLA,” Mirkovic says. “I wanted to … be just like her. When I told people I wanted to play in the Pac-12 and be an outside hitter, they were like, ‘You’re too small. You can’t do it.’ ”

Although Mirkovic knew they were serious, she acted like their words were coming from an “Impractical Jokers” sketch playing on her family’s TV. She dismissed her doubters, knowing she could compete as an outside hitter in the Pac-12. And she did.

Today, Mirkovic is Cal volleyball’s starting outside hitter and the sole six-rotation player in the lineup. On top of that, she quickly worked her way up Cal’s beach volleyball ranks, finishing her outdoor season at the Bears’ No. 1 slot.

“I try not to think about it, because the more I think about it, it just stacks on these layers of unnecessary pressure, and it just keeps me from playing freely,” Mirkovic says. “My goal is just to play freely, have fun and just remember at the end of the day that it is a game and that I’m good at the game and everyone on this team is here because they’re really good at the game.”

The relatively young beach volleyball program set records last year as the Bears ended the season at No. 12 in the nation. But what stands out most to Mirkovic is the fun she shared with her teammates while upsetting countless opponents as the underdogs.

“We could laugh but also be serious with each other,” Mirkovic says. “It was one of the best team dynamics that I’ve ever been part of. Laughter was like a domino effect. We were always laughing, but we were always focused.”

Humor has proven itself to be the common thread sewn into all parts of Mirkovic’s life — her family, her home and her collegiate volleyball career. Laughter binds her life together, anchoring Mirkovic down.

In cracking jokes of her own on and off the court, Mirkovic constantly eases tensions, creating a positive, light-hearted atmosphere wherever she goes.

“I remember seeing the whole team smile when she walks in the room, when she trips over her own feet, when her juice drips down her chin,” Aharoni says. “It’s something I hope my daughter learns someday — to learn how to laugh at yourself.”

Right now, it’s unclear what lies ahead for Mirkovic. Playing volleyball overseas, adopting a golden retriever named Bear, pursuing a career in sports marketing and making a homecoming trip to enjoy her grandfather’s fruit trees in Serbia are all plausible post-graduation options, and perhaps all are in store for Mirkovic.

Mirkovic still has more than two years to continue setting records, developing her name alongside her school’s and making everyone’s stomachs hurt from laughing too hard.

All jokes aside, Mirkovic’s passion for a rich life full of laughter will propel her past whatever may cross her path.

Surina Khurana covers volleyball. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @surina_k.