Ljiljana (Lilo) Ljubisic: Dialogue with an Adventist world-class athlete

She is young. She is beautiful. She is confident. And she is blind. But blindness from infancy has not kept Ljiljana (Lilo) Ljubisic from becoming a world-renowned athlete, winning several Olympic medals. She has competed in four Paralympic Games, including the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she broke two world records for the totally blind—earning two bronze medals. Twelve years earlier in Los Angeles she won a silver medal in Team Handball for the blind. In 1988 at Seoul she grabbed a bronze in shot put. The 1992 Barcelona games brought her a gold medal in discus and a silver medal in shot put. In the 1994 Berlin World Championships she broke the world record in discus and won the gold. Today Lilo is one of the most successful Paralympic athletes in the world.

In addition to her athletic involvements, Lilo is a professional speaker for conventions, corporations, schools, and churches worldwide. Born in Yugoslavia and educated in Canada, she has traveled to all the five continents, carrying a message of hope and confidence. Lilo attributes her success to a strong God-given desire to overcome her circumstances and to give hope to millions of people of all ages. Married to Robert Andersen and living in British Columbia, Canada, Lilo is a committed Seventh-day Adventist.

As a professional athlete you have traveled broadly and associated with many other successful athletes. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your high-profile life?

I have learned to be humble and to be sensitive to God’s will and His guidance in my life. Every day doors open and close, and each day is an exciting opportunity to learn how to give God the right-of-way.

What has helped you most to be successful?

My abiding faith in God is always first. But in addition, the following are perhaps the most important: First, challenge yourself to do the best you can with the talents with which you are blessed. If you give something 100 percent, then success will come your way. It is very important to set goals and dream big. Being able to visualize your dream brings you closer to your achievement—especially in my case since I’m blind. Second, grasp the power and strength in teamwork. No one stands alone. Find people who will support your dream and will help you to make it a reality. Third, focus on what you can do and not on what you can’t.

Many people would consider being blind a limitation to getting ahead in life. Would you agree?

I find myself frustrated, not less fortunate. My biggest frustration, however, comes from the limitations other people place on me—their perceptions of what I can do and what I can’t. People want to place me in specific careers that in their view would be appropriate for the blind, such as a receptionist or a teacher of the disabled, but definitely not to travel, to be a public speaker or an athlete.

I have to find ways of being creative to do the same activities that sighted people do. We all have challenges. Mine are just more evident, and I have to overcome them just like everybody else who is striving for success.

What was the cause of your blindness?

I was born with normal sight. But in my infancy a doctor misdiagnosed chicken pox as the flu and prescribed sulfa antibiotics. As a result I began suffering the effects of an allergic reaction to the medication that caused hair growth underneath my eyelids. The hair scratched my corneas every time I blinked. Tears were always running down my cheeks. This very painful, constant irritation hurt my eyes and prevented me from living a normal life. Between 1988 and 1990 I underwent five corneal transplants and nine operations. I lost and gained my sight five times during that period. Still, due to body rejections of the cornea, infections, and perforations of cornea tissues, I gradually became blind. It was the lowest point of my life.

Is there a single individual to whom you are most grateful for the success in your life?

Yes, my mother. While I was growing up in Yugoslavia, she taught me to pursue my dreams. She instilled in me the determination to never give up and helped me in getting myself grounded in an unreserved faith in God. I speak often about God because He is so real to me. He has shown me signs and guided me along the way. Of course, it helps that I am positive, determined, and outgoing. I am persistent and ambitious enough to follow in the direction that is opened to me.

I do not fear failure. If you do, you fear success. I believe that 95 percent of people do not live life to the fullest potential; they live just everyday, mediocre lives. Real success comes at a cost, and most people aren’t willing to pay it.

You are famous athlete. You are admired around the world. But what is your ultimate mission?

My mission is to educate, motivate, and inspire people of all ages. When I was a child I never would have thought–not having a lot of confidence, being ostracized and shy–that I would be in sports today. It has provided me a platform to speak, to minister to people who are negative and not valuing the assets within themselves. I am a woman and I am disabled, so I feel I can help people in saying: If I can do it, you most certainly can! It has been a tremendous blessing to be able to share my experience with thousands of people, eager to listen and learn of a way that will bring some meaning to their lives. It comes naturally to me now because I’m just speaking from the heart.

What are some of the difficulties you have faced in becoming a world-renowned athlete?

Because I am blind, I couldn’t find a coach at the beginning. People’s lack of support and understanding has made it difficult from the beginning. Financial support was extremely scarce because the Paralympic athletes are not respected like non-disabled athletes in North America. It is indeed unfortunate that the Paralympics are viewed worldwide just like the Olympics, except in North America. But we always have to overcome these obstacles, and strive to be the best.

Another challenge that I have faced is that I can’t mimic my coach and I can’t study my videotapes. I never know where I’m throwing. It takes me a lot longer than a sighted athlete to get the hang of it.

Did you find it difficult to adapt to a new culture when you came from Yugoslavia?

Yugoslavia is a beautiful country, but unfortunately religion there has been the root of all the strife. I love the customs and the traditions, and I definitely miss my extended family, but Canada has now become my homeland. One of the reasons my parents chose to come to Canada was because they knew that here they would find better opportunities for me as a blind girl. Today I am always proud to represent the maple leaf on the podium.

What made you decide to become an athlete?

I come from a family of athletes and, had I not been blind, I would have been in the Olympics. It’s just a natural extension of who I was meant to be. But as I grew up I was never encouraged to participate in gym class in school; I was always sent to the library. But a teacher in the 11th grade saw the potential in me and encouraged me to start practicing volleyball and other sports. That sparked my dream of being a professional athlete. Interestingly enough, my second competition ever was at the Paralympic games in 1984.

When speaking to young people, what is the most important message you want to convey?

I always emphasize that there is hope for them and that they have to be positive even when the world around may appear negative. I tell them to set goals, small or big. I also tell them to accept responsibility and to challenge themselves in doing the best they can because there are incredible rewards. I challenge them to be accountable. The exclamation point is always: If a blind person can do it, so can you.

Living in a “dark” world, what are some of the things you notice that maybe sighted people don’t?

I hear a lot more because that’s what I focus on. I am much more internally focused than sighted people. I am always listening for what my body is telling me. Another advantage I have is the ability to overlook people’s external appearances. Sighted people, without realizing it, make conclusions on people right away, based on their external appearance. I, on the other hand, see people on the inside through their voices or touch and the outside makes no difference to me. That’s a great advantage. I also have to be a lot more trusting of people to help me in getting around town. I put my life in the Lord’s hands every day.

What are your dreams for the future?

The pursuit of a dream is 90 percent of the excitement. I spent 12 years getting here, and now what? I always set new goals because now I am first in the world, and it’s difficult to remain first. So you have to look at life in a different way. Recently, I was involved in a car accident that forced me to interrupt my athletic activities for a few months. But I still want to win another gold medal in the next Paralympics and, if possible, compete with sighted women.

When I’m done being an athlete I want to write a book. It would be to motivate and inspire, and it will hopefully open more doors for public speaking engagements. I feel that I have a lot to share and I see myself moving in that direction.

For all the young people with a dream or a vision, what is the most crucial advice you would give them?

I would say: “Believe in yourself and what you can do. Keep your eyes on the Lord and trust in Him. He knows what’s best for you and the path He wants you to take. When you pray, ask for a sign to guide you in the direction He has selected for you. In life there are many paths, but they’re not all good, so when God tells you what He wants you to do, you have to be able to change your course and do it. Your life will be much more rewarding that way.”

Interview by Catia Carvalho Mills. Born in Brazil, Catia Carvalho Mills is a free-lance writer completing a Master of Arts degree in French at the University of Maryland, in College Park, Maryland, U.S.A. Ljiljana (Lilo) Ljubisic’s address: 306-1001 Ridgeway Avenue; Coquitlam, British Columbia; Canada V3J 1S4. Fax: (604) 937-3619. E-mail: Lilo@globalserve.net.