FANWOOD/SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- Ana Bogdanovski is perhaps the most unlikely participant at the Summer Olympics in Brazil, where the Fanwood resident will carry the flag for her nation: Macedonia, a country located in the Balkan peninsula in Southeast Europe.
Bogdanovski's parents both are natives of the country, and she has dual U.S.-Macedonian citizenship. Now a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, the swimmer was a 2015 NCAA Woman of the Year Top 30 nominee and holds the top ten fastest times in the school's history for the 50, 100, and 200 freestyle.
In the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremony in Rio, Greece will enter first, as always. The other nations will enter in alphabetical order in the language of the host country (Brazilian Portuguese). Thus, Macedonia -- officially known as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (Antiga República Iugoslava da Macedônia) -- will be the 8th country to march. Bogdanovski will carry the flag on August 5 and then compete on August 8, just one week past her 23rd birthday.
Bogdanovski, who grew up on MacLennan Place and still calls Fanwood her home, captured 10 NCAA titles and earned All-America honors 23 times during her college career.
Her spot on the Macedonian team came to be after she asked an uncle to get her a swim cap with the country's flag on it. It turned out that the times the swimmer had placed in competitions here in the U.S. were fast enough to qualify for the Macedonian Olympic team. She will swim in the 200 freestyle for her ancestral home land on August 8th in Rio.
"My uncle signed me up to be on the team. It was happenstance," said Bogdanovski, who is the Macedonian national record holder in 50, 100, 200 freestyle, and 50, 100 backstroke. "I always dreamed of swimming in the Olympics for Macedonia, but didn't know how to go about it. I spent a few months training there."
What makes her journey to the Olympics even more unusual is that she gave up the sport while she was a sophomore in high school.
"I was really bad, and I wasn't having any fun," the self-depreciating Bogdanovski said. "At 4 ft. 11 inches, I was the smallest swimmer on the team. My best time was 1:12 in the 100 freestyle. (Because I left) I was only swimmer to not get a varsity letter on the swim team."
Nor was she a child prodigy.
"I didn't even pass the deep water test at Highland Pool the first time I tried. The Westfield Y told my parents not to waste their money on me. I came to FSPY and had a hard time making Bronze times."
"She had a rough time at first," said her former swim coach Chris Karelus, Competitive Aquatics Director at Fanwood-Scotch Plains YMCA, where Bogdanovski swam for two years.
Her career might have come to an end at age 15 were it not for her friend Jill Leahy.
"I went to the Magnet School, and Jill went to Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School. We missed hanging out together, and I realized our only opportunity to be together came during swim practice," recounted Bogdanovski, who loved growing up in a quiet street and riding her bike to downtown Fanwood to get ice cream or bagels.
Bogdanovski explained that in high school she would get so nervous that she would throw up before her races and sometimes hid in the bathroom faking stomach pains or shoulder injuries to get out of swimming.
"I thought it was too hard. I didn't want to do it," Bogdanovski said.
"Ana had a rough freshman year," recalled SPFHS swim coach Jess Hulnik. "She really blossomed in her junior and senior seasons."
At Johns Hopkins University, Bogdanovski was a NCAA "Today’s Top Ten Winner," was featured in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" section, and was a Division III Collegiate Women’s Sports Award and Woman of the Year Top 30 nominee in 2015. She also won her school's Catherine P. Cramer Award, given to the senior female who has made the most outstanding contribution in athletics at Johns Hopkins.
In 2014, as a junior, she was honored as the NCAA Division III Woman Swimmer of the Year. From 2013-15, she was a Ten-Time overall NCAA Division III Swimming National Champion (five-time individual). During her college career, she was a 23-time All-American Award recipient.
Bogdanovski won a post-graduate scholarship and, after taking a year deferment to train for the Olympics and will attend New Jersey Medical School (formerly UMDNJ) in Newark upon her return from Rio. During the past year, she has trained in Baltimore and at U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where she swam with the sport's biggest stars, including Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin and Michael Phelps.
Bogdanovski says she eats like a normal human being and drinks shakes made with protein powders and beet juice concentrate.
Her advice to the young FSPY swimmers who came to meet her at a homecoming of sorts on Sunday was: "All the training you do will prepare your body. You have to control your mind. It's okay to be nervous; if you are not nervous, you don't care."
"Never stop dreaming. Swimming has taken me to places I never thought I'd be."