This is me: Snježana Petika
An EHF Champions League Women and EHF Champions Trophy winner in 1996, a Champions League runner-up, two-time Champions League top scorer, seven times voted best Croatian handball player, a holder of the Order of Danica Hrvatska - Franjo Bucar medal for exceptional achievements in sport, and one of the best left back players of her time with 673 matches played and 4,000 goals scored for Podravka.
Today, she is a handball coach in HC Podravka Vegeta's handball academy, an assistant coach for the Croatian national team with a bronze medal from the Women's EHF EURO 2020 and a proud mother of Tena and David. In the latest This is Me, Snježana Petika talks about her path and the importance of handball.
THIS IS ME: Snježana Petika
I don't quite remember how I chose handball but since I was little I took part in sport. I did gymnastics, then athletics and basketball alongside handball, but I somehow felt most comfortable in handball.
I was playing in my home town, Vinkovci, when people from Podravka reached out to me and asked me to join the club. We shared the same ambitions and that is how I changed Vinkovci for Koprivnica in 1987. The rest is history.
When I joined Podravka my first coach was Ivan Pal, then Josip Samarzija and about that time is when the ‘European Podravka’ project began, a project to return women's handball to the top. In my first three years in Podravka, we were playing in the second division and in the 1989/90 season, we won and made the comeback to the first federal division of Yugoslavia.
Only two years later, Croatia got its independence and we were playing our first year in the Croatian Championship and Cup. It took three years to get our hands on the first Croatian trophy and earn a place in the Champions League.
In our first season in the EHF Champions League Women, we got through the 1/8-finals stage and in group A finished last, but already we knew we could do better. In the second season of the Champions League, we made it to the final. In our very first final, we lost to Hypo Niederösterreich 40:36 on aggregate and being the competition's top scorer was not much of a relief for me. We were so close, yet so far away, but we were determined to make it happen one day. And we did not have to wait long as in the next season, the trophy was ours.
The 1995/96 season was our third season in the top-tier competition and again, we made it to the final and our opponent again was Hypo Niederösterreich. In the first match, we lost 17:13 but in the return match, in our town, our hall, we celebrated 25:20 and raised the trophy.
Now, I remember that day very well. We had an amazing atmosphere in our venue in Koprivnica and I remember when I entered the venue I had that feeling. You know, the feeling that says you are going to win today. It felt like it was our last chance, and in a way, it was like a prophecy as we have never repeated that success, even though we had maybe an even better squad in the next season.
With that feeling, fans, team spirit and determination, it was almost impossible not to play at a high level. We had everything. I am really proud I was part of that team, to raise the European trophy in Koprivnica and to be the top scorer of the competition for two consecutive years. That 1995/96 season was really our season. After raising the Champions League trophy, we finished the season with another trophy, the EHF Champions Trophy.
I did not remember much from those finals for a very long time. I watched our winning final game of the Champions League for the first time 20 years later. What I know is that I have learned a lot.
Just like I learned a lot from each coach during my career. They taught me something about handball and life. I think every smart player will take with him the best of what each coach has taught, if you know how to recognise that. Every coach left his mark on me and shaped my style of play.
From Vatroslav Srhoj and Nenad Sostaric in the national team, to Mate Matijevic, and the young and ambitious Zdenko Kordi and Nenad Hrupec in my club career. But the biggest influence on me, other than my first coaches in Vinkovci, Stjepan Versic and Zvonko Bosnjak, were my three coaches in Podravka: Josip Samarzija, Josip Sojat and Ivan Pal. They put their stamp on one handball era.
Professor Samarzija gave me freedom on the court, something I believe every backcourt player should have. When Sojat came to the club it was not easy, but we soon got to know each other and he knew when he needed to give us freedom and when to tighten things up. With him, we reached the stars. Not forgetting Ivan Pal, the one who welcomed me on my first day in Podravka and the one who shook my hands on the day I retired. To this day we have a great relationship and communication.
Maybe the most beautiful period in handball for me were the two seasons after I gave birth to my daughter Tena. Coach Ivan Pal recognised I did not have to train as much as other players and we had great communication. If I needed just one training, or two; more shots training or gym. Everything fell in place.
And because of that, it was not difficult to get back on the court after giving birth. I really enjoyed that period. But the funny story is I wanted to retire around the same time I got pregnant with Tena. I did not enjoy being on the court as much, going to training seemed a lot harder than usual. It felt like torture for me. That is why my husband Bozidar and I decided to start a family. When I gave birth I did not think I would return to handball. But Hypo Niederösterreich gave me a call and offered me the chance to get back to playing. At the same time, Podravka came with the counteroffer and I decided to stay in Koprivnica.
There is a saying that after giving birth you are more mature, and you play with more satisfaction, and I really felt that. That's why I look at that period as one of the best years on the court. I enjoyed playing, I was happy going to training, I had freedom and everyone was very supportive of me.
Alongside success in Podravka, I played for the Croatia national team. Even though we did not win any medals at big tournaments, we finished fifth at the EHF EURO in 1994 and sixth at the IHF World Championship. Until the historic bronze medal at the EHF EURO 2020, those two results were the best ones for the women's national team.
I remember when we went to that EHF EURO in 1994, people were not very satisfied with our results. Just like after the World Championship. There were a lot of people saying we older players should leave the team and give the opportunity to younger players. In the following years that happened but no one was able to repeat that success for 24 years.
There were even times when Croatia did not qualify for the big tournaments. To be honest, I believe we had a great team with amazing players who could have won the medal. But we were a young country, we only just got our independence, we were going to the championships with only seven days of preparation and I believe it was unrealistic to expect us to return with the medal.
I finally retired in 2003 and it was an easy decision. Every player knows when they need to stop as you are aware you cannot play forever. I was 36 and my husband and I decided we wanted to have another child. Our wish came true a year later as my son David was born. For a player who spent so many years actively playing, sometimes it can be hard to get used to a new life, without everyday training, without matches. I think I did well in that transition.
Some players say not going to the Olympic Games is their biggest regret. I never thought of it. Of course, it would be nice to be part of that whole sports spectacle and I hope I will achieve it with the Croatian national team. But for me, not winning a medal for Croatia as a player, Podravka not being a top contender in Europe for a longer time and me not trying to play somewhere outside of Croatia, I would say those are my biggest regrets from my playing career.
I used to say I would never be a coach but never say never, right? Soon after my retirement, I started to work with children and today I can say I love to be a coach. I enjoy working in handball. Working with children is something beautiful. They listen, work hard, don't question you and never complain. It is just pure joy and love for the sport. With each day you can see the results of your work through them.
On the other side, I did not approve of Tena starting handball too. In Podravka, you can join the handball academy when you are eight years old, and I was always saying to Tena to choose something different. When she was a kid she loved to dance, to watch ‘Dancing with the Stars’ on TV, and I gave her the idea of going to dance classes. But she did not want to hear about it. She was waiting to turn eight to start handball. That's when I told her I never want to hear her complain about pain or how tough handball is.
I know how hard handball is, what it does to your body and how much sacrifice it takes. My son David, just like every man, chose football. They are both involved in sports and I am proud of them. My husband and I always supported them and cheer for them, but we always said they should not forget about education, education should always be a priority.
Even though I was against Tena playing handball, life always gets back at you. It happened in Podravka. After some time, they decided to put her in the older group I used to coach and for a short period of time I was her coach in the youth national team also. All that was hard for both of us. I still haven’t found a way to separate those two roles - being a mother and a coach. Tena had to listen to me about handball at the training and in a way, we had the extension of training at home. For her, it was also hard as she had to deal with mean gossip and prove herself even more. That is why I wish for no one to be a coach to their own kids.
My family means everything to me. They are my joy and I am so lucky to have my husband Bozidar next to me. It is not easy to be a wife, a mother, a professional player and later a coach with a normal day job. He took over in many aspects and helped a lot. There are no men's or women's household jobs, everyone does everything if the other partner needs help. He was and still is my biggest support.
I had a very tough childhood. Handball was my get-out ticket, from all financial and family situations. Handball was a safe harbour and something I enjoyed doing. That's why I was working hard and I was ready to give up everything for handball. But thanks to handball I am here where I am today.
I love handball and working as a coach and I am privileged to be a coach in Croatia's national team. After everything I went through, to be part of a historic medal for Croatia, celebrating bronze at the EHF EURO 2020, it is a great feeling and I do believe I have earned my place here.
That is why, in the end, I can say that handball gave me everything, I gave a lot to handball and I hope I will continue helping women's handball and younger generations with my knowledge.