This is me: Jelena Grubisic
She is an EHF Champions League Women winner in 2016, the MVP of an EHF FINAL4, a holder of more than 18 trophies with three clubs, voted the best Croatian handball player in 2016, and an honorary citizen of Bucharest. It is safe to say Jelena Grubisic has left her mark, not only on the court between the posts but also in the handball world. The fresh retiree enjoys her new roles: an ambassador of the EHF Respect Your Talent programme and, most important, being a mother. Here is Jelena Grubisic in her own words for the latest episode of our This is me series.
THIS IS ME: Jelena Grubisic
I am very satisfied with my career, even though it could always be better – just like it can always be worse. Of course, there were opportunities to win more trophies, maybe a medal with the Croatia national team or one more Champions League title. But there are so many top players without a Champions League title and I have one. What else can I say about my career?
I think my persistence and desire to win made me the goalkeeper I was. You have to have courage and persistence to come back after so many injuries and I always wanted more.
Everything started when I was 10 years old, in elementary school. My late PE teacher Rudolf Carek was closely connected to handball and was a former player and a coach. Therefore, we always played handball in school. It was a must. A few of us who had potential according to him were sent to Lokomotiva to try handball there. That is how it all started. Next Lokomotiva, I played the school league with my friends on the outside concrete court and it was a real pleasure and fun.
At the time I wasn’t a goalkeeper yet. I just wanted to have fun and I didn’t have any preferences. In school, we tried every position and for some time due to my height, as I was among the shortest kids, I was a wing.
One day the Lokomotiva coach asked who would stand between the posts and no one answered – but me. I will be honest, I was a little bit lazy and didn’t want to run as much, so I decided being a goalkeeper is the best.
During my time at Lokomotiva, there were many good periods. I went through all selections, and with 16 I got into the first team. I had the privilege to play with top players like Klaudija Bubalo, and Nataša Kolega. Also, I had the opportunity to learn from great goalkeepers like Ivana Jelcic and others that spent their time in Zagreb. My 1987 generation was amazing. We were winning championships, had an amazing rivalry with Podravka, and played numerous handball tournaments.
Throughout my whole career, every coach left a mark on my playing style and had its role in my handball journey and I am thankful to all. However, one coach I always mention is Ante Bojic. He had one of the biggest influences on me during my early career and he taught me everything I am today and what I know. Everything that came later was an upgrade.
One thing that was important for me was education. I always used to say: ‘I will not leave Zagreb until I get my college degree.’ However, things quickly changed. After I was done with my third year at the Faculty of Economics and Business in Zagreb, I got an offer from Krim. I could not wait to try myself outside of Zagreb and Croatia and to move away from my parents. Like all young people.
At Krim, I met a lot of friends and had a great time but still, it was close enough to Zagreb. I thought I will finish those two last years with ease like the first three, but in the end, it extended all the way to Bucharest when I finally got my hands on a master's degree. It was hard to manage classes, exams, training, playing the Champions League and everything else in Ljubljana.
But I don’t have any regret. Maybe if I had stayed in Zagreb to finish college I wouldn’t be where I am today and had the chance to play in the clubs where I played. I have nice memories of every club. I like my time at Krim and everyone at the cub was nice to me.
I met people who became friends for the life. We were a young team, we had good times and a good life outside of handball. Again, I had an opportunity to play with great players. I really had the luck of playing in top clubs and can’t say one bad thing about any of them.
My next stop was Györ, a true powerhouse in women’s handball. Unfortunately, I spent there only a few months. In January 2015, I had ACL surgery and most of my rehabilitation time was in Zagreb, with occasional travels to Györ.
During those first five months, we all know what it means to be there. It was an honour to get invited by Györ. They are well structured from top to bottom and you have anything you need. Not to say anything bad against anyone but they are one of the best organised clubs.
That was my third knee surgery and I was going through tough times. They signed a new goalkeeper after that and I knew I had to find a new club. Until June 2015 I didn’t have any offers and I didn’t have a club until CSM Bucuresti reached out to me. They were the only ones.
When I was thinking about whether I should accept it or not, the crucial thing was that Carmen Martín, Linnea Torstenson and Oana Manea, who played at Krim with me, were already there for a year. They played in the Romanian league to reach the spot in the Champions League.
After three knee surgeries, you don’t have too much to think about. It was my first signing far away from home, but when you are a player you don’t think about it. You just have to do what is best for you. And it was the best decision for me.
I won many national trophies and individual awards but 2016 will be forever in my heart. The year we won the EHF Champions League title. That is the highlight of my career. Overcoming every obstacle I encountered, paid off.
Those two days at the EHF FINAL4 are always magical. In the mixture of players, preparations, style, and hard work, you need to have luck. And I did have luck. I had two great days in Budapest and I capped off my best performance between the posts. My girls were playing great, especially in defence, and helped me enormously to have such a high number of saves in those two matches. They helped me to be awarded the MVP of the EHF FINAL4.
After my third knee surgery, a lot of hard work, hours and hours of rehabilitation, with only one club offer, to have the MVP award and EHF Champions League trophy in your hands, a little over a year after, is an incredible and unbelievable feeling. If someone told me I would win it with CSM Bucuresti against Györ – the same Györ I left with after an injury, I would not believe it.
One thing that is special about that title is our preparation period, something we still laugh about. All three teams that qualified with us – Vardar, Györ and Buducnost – were hoping to meet us in the semi-final. We were fourth in our group, later eliminated Rostov-Don, the leaders of their respective group. We were the underdogs of the competition. I remember they all had a preparation week with hard training to get ready for Budapest. But our head coach Kim Rasmussen gave us a couple of days free.
Some of the girls went on vacation around Europe and I went home to Zagreb. We had mini holidays. When we came back, we played football and warm-up games until our trip to Budapest. In a way, we didn’t prepare a lot for those matches. And in the end, we went all the way. We always laugh about it, especially with players who were our opponents then.
I can say we were lucky, but we were also motivated by how everyone underestimated us, we were rested, and we knew we had nothing to lose. We reached our goals and we just wanted to enjoy that final weekend.
I spent seven great years in Bucharest. Added two bronze Champions League medals and won national titles, cups and Super Cups. The club was developing with me, with us, and I was satisfied. We changed a lot of coaches and goalkeeper coaches, we had a good team both on and off the court, and the city was great. Everything fell into its place. I felt good in Bucharest.
I played for top clubs and won trophies, but the summary of my whole career is – friends. That is one of the most important and beautiful things about our sport. You meet people who become friends for life, you meet different cultures, nationalities, and religions, and you connect together. You see the world and that is what enriches your life.
I should not forget the national team. I loved playing for my country and was always giving my best. I got my first call-up for the national team in 2005 and I was part of it until 2014. I am proud of my time in the national team and I think our biggest regret is not winning a medal. I think our generation had great players: we clicked, had a good atmosphere, but we always were missing something in those decisive matches. We always were stopped in the quarter-finals.
My biggest regret are the Olympic Games in London in 2012. We had an amazing tournament until Miranda Tatari and Andrea Penezic got injured. We were lost without them and failed to fight for a medal. A national team medal would have made my career complete.
Despite that, being an Olympian is something every player dreams of and just being part of it is a big deal. Living in the Olympic village and seeing top athletes is another highlight of my career.
There are no beautiful, unforgettable memories without bad ones. The first time I injured my knee, it was really hard for me. Very tragic. I didn’t know how everything would turn out, when I would come back, whether I would come back at all…
When it happened for the second and third time, I knew what to expect. You know what you need to get back on the court and continue doing what you love – handball. You give your best to return to the court, which makes you happy.
In those moments, my family was my biggest support. They were next to me since the beginning, from driving me to the training, to matches. They were my support in all good and bad decisions, never pushing me and always supporting me. I can only be thankful for them.
During my last year at CSM Bucuresti, I already was thinking about retiring. It was time to quit. My body was telling me it couldn’t cope with that rhythm, travelling, trainings, matches and the Champions League, and I knew the end was coming.
On the other hand, as I was older, I wanted to get back to my family, to be closer to them, to friends. With time, you realise how many important events you missed and I wanted to start my own family. That is why I decided that the 2021/22 season would be my last one.
Moving back to Zagreb was making my all wishes come true. I enjoy my time with family and friends. And now, for almost two months, I have a new role – the role of a mother.
Being a mother is something completely different, another dimension and something that can’t be explained or compared with anything else. After all those years of being abroad, having your life on track and schedule, now everything is turned upside down. And I enjoy every minute of it. It’s still sometimes surreal to me that I am a mother and I have a child. I look at her and can’t believe she is mine.
I love my new role and got my peace with my decision to retire. I will not return to the court, it is not in my plans at 36 and after three knee surgeries. But I don’t want to say ‘never.’ You never know what can happen.
I don’t see myself as a coach either, even though I see myself staying connected to handball. For now, I enjoy being part of different projects in handball and going to handball camps. I am a Respect Your Talent ambassador and I support the ‘HandbALL IN’ project of my former teammate Maida Arslanagic for children with developmental disabilities.
I see myself helping the young ones with my knowledge and experience. I hope all projects that can help children will keep on going for many years to come and that I will be able to contribute. My message to young players is to believe in your dreams, believe in yourselves and be persistent. You can overcome every problem and just keep on going. You can do it!
It is also something I would say to the young Gruba as well: Just follow your dream and be yourself.
I wouldn’t change anything in my career.