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U.S. bobsledder rides for redemption

TURIN, Italy -- He was 7 years old, just a little boy with big dreams as he stood before the television and marveled. The kids in the neighborhood were still stuck on "Sesame Street" when Pavle Jovanovic became hooked on the Winter Olympics as they were broadcast from his parents' homeland.

In 1984, the former Yugoslavia was still intact. Sarajevo, its capital, was praised around the world for its beauty while staging the Winter Games. It became a killing field. Olympic Stadium, once considered a work of art, is now decorated with bullet holes while the surrounding area is a massive graveyard, a result of the 1992-95 war that tore the country apart.

Sarajevo has a special place in Jovanovic's heart for what it meant to him as a child, not what it became. Still, he's come to understand there's no ignoring history, which can be unrelenting and torturous until a man becomes a shell of himself. Like his native city, he knows what it is to be scarred.

In 2002, he was a world-class pusher on the U.S. bobsled team before his life was forever changed, his reputation forever stained, when he tested positive for steroids before the Olympics in Salt Lake City. He had a predictable excuse, claimed he ingested steroids unknowingly after taking a supplement from a nutritionist.

Only a trace of 19-norandrostenedione was found in his system, but it was enough to get him suspended for nine months. He appealed the suspension and in return was banished for two years. Good thing he didn't appeal that decision. He might be doing 20 to life in solitary confinement.

"It's been killing me, absolutely killing me for the past four years," Jovanovic said Wednesday. "I haven't stopped training, haven't stopped thinking about getting another chance. It caused my family more pain than any other single thing that's ever happened to us. That caused them more pain and heartache than I ever imagined."

Jovanovic was humiliated and convinced he tarnished the family's name. He could have run, could have disappeared into America's landscape. He could have taken the three classes he needed for a degree in civil engineering from Rutgers University. In fact, he considered quitting before Buffalo native Steve Mesler pleaded with him to pour himself into winning the gold medal in Italy.

Now, Jovanovic is determined to repay the country for what happened in 2002 and reclaim what he believes was stolen from him. It has been a lonely road back, one that exposed him to ridicule. People long ago lost their patience with athletes and steroids, and Jovanovic nearly suffocated from the criticism. Finally, he succumbed to the realization
his name was permanently tethered to performance-enhancing drugs.

It is what it is.

"I can't replace what's happened in the past," Jovanovic said. "That's etched in stone. I can fulfill what I've dreamed of doing my whole life. That's not negotiable under any circumstances. Any reason why it doesn't happen is just an excuse. It was something I had to overcome. If I decided to pack it in, it would have been a cowardice move."

What hurts most is knowing his reputation rests 180 degrees from his values. He was raised by a Serbian steelworker who moved to the United States in 1970 and settled in Toms River, N.J. Jovanovic started working construction with his father when he was 8. He prides himself in outworking everybody for everything. Take one look at his chiseled 218-pound body, and you see a man familiar with labor.

And now he's branded as a cheater.

Jovanovic, fittingly, kept pushing. He's suing the company that made the protein powder, claiming the suspension ruined his reputation and robbed him of an opportunity to compete four years ago. He said he never would have consumed the powder had he known it was a banned substance. It might have been an honest mistake, but ultimately he's held responsible. After all, it's his body.

"That was the ultimate irony to me, because he was the most dedicated -- and still is -- athlete I've ever known," pilot Todd Hays said. "For him to get that stigma was positively horrible."

Earlier this week, Jovanovic boasted that the Americans have the strongest bobsled team in the world. The United States won the silver medal in 2002, and the Yanks should be stronger with Jovanovic and Mesler on the team along with Brock Kreitzburg. They will be among the favorites Feb. 25.

It's no longer just about redemption or competition. Jovanovic desperately wants to win. The Yanks haven't captured gold in bobsled in 58 years, so this could become a year to remember. Several people have suggested that Jovanovic could be making an all-time comeback and providing a lesson in perseverance along the way.

Jovanovic believes it's a tragedy. Winning the gold medal might dull the pain, but there's no way he can rewrite history. He's already paid a dear price.

"I see it as a nightmare," he said. "I can't dissociate myself from the stigmas attached to me. If I was a great story, I would be part of living the American dream and living a great life. Unfortunately for me, that's not possible. I do this only because I have a few people that believe in me, and I know what I'm capable of doing."


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