'You don't want to be looking through the gun at your uncle': Sestic's remarkable handball journey

Sasa Sestic has rediscovered his passion for handball. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Sasa Sestic has rediscovered his passion for handball. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Four disparate pillars have shaped the remarkable journey of Sasa Sestic.

War meant he spent much of his early life as a refugee.

Prodigious talent on the European handball court led him to the Olympics.

An insatiable passion for coffee, has commanded his last decade while delivering Sestic a world barista championship.

But most importantly, family has guided him at every critical juncture.

The Tokyo Games have provided an element of catharsis for the 42-year-old, who hasn't allowed himself to watch handball at the Olympics since Australia's 2000 campaign in Sydney.

His handball journey has finally come full circle, and Sestic has rediscovered a long-lost passion for the sport which defined so much of the first half of his life.

But the fact Sestic ever made it to Australia at all is almost as incredible as what happened after he arrived.

Sestic's vertical leap of 137cm used to be an AIS record. Picture: Instagram

Sestic's vertical leap of 137cm used to be an AIS record. Picture: Instagram

Yugoslavia, early 1990s

Born and raised in Bosnia, Sestic was the son of a professional powerlifter named Mile whose 340kg deadlift is still a Balkan record to this day.

His two sons, Dragan and Sasa, were both supremely talented handballers from a young age, and Mile was determined they would both fulfil their potential.

There were daily gym sessions in amongst school and weekends, and Dragan and Sasa both joined professional handball clubs - all the while with Mile shielding the boys for the multiple wars which left Yugoslavia crumbling all around them.

It meant living as refugees, and moving to 17 different apartments in four countries throughout an exceedingly unstable seven-year stretch.

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"My father is my hero," Sestic fondly recalls.

"I had a dream for Me and Dragan, both of us to become professional players.

"Everything was great, [then] the war started in 1989. We moved to Croatia before the war, then we moved from Croatia to Bosnia.

"They were left without everything, a house, packed two suitcases in the car and off we go back to Bosnia to live with my Grandma and my uncle in a one bedroom apartment, six of us for two years.

"Somehow my dad protected us and kept us in a bubble without us realising there was a war and all this chaos happening.

"Another war started in Bosnia, this time between Serbia and Muslims. My parents are mixed marriage, my dad is orthodox, my mum is Muslim.

"Dragan was turning 18. He was supposed to go to compulsory war as a soldier. We didn't want to take part in the wars, mixed marriage, you don't want to be looking through the gun at your uncle, your auntie, or someone that's another part of your family.

"Dad wanted to protect the family. . .so we escaped to Serbia."

Dragan signed a professional contract in Serbia. Soon after Sestic joined the first team as a 16-year-old, already forging a national reputation for his freakish vertical leap.

Then another war started and Mile decided enough was enough.

1999 - The decision

Mile chose Australia as an escape for his family.

The Sydney Olympics were approaching in 2000, and he knew both his sons would be good enough to represent Australia.

That offered a path to citizenship, which would ultimately secure a safer future. It also kept alive the possibility of pursuing handball professionally in Europe after the Olympics.

Sestic's vertical leap had grown to astonishing heights by now.

His 137cm vertical jump off three steps used to be an AIS record. On the handball court, it meant he was almost undefendable.

When international handball teams from around the world gathered in Sydney in 1999 to test the Olympic facilities, Sestic produced the best game of his life.

A 13-goal first half against Belarus caught the eye of one of European handball's most notorious scouts, and before he'd even had a chance to shower after that match he'd been asked to sign the contract of a lifetime.

"I was offered to go to Kiel in Germany to play professionally, this is like the Real Madrid of handball it's a dream of any handball player to go there," Sestic recalls.

"Everything was organised, I was supposed to be leaving in two weeks time, because the season already started maybe a month before that.

"I decided not to take that offer. I made the best decision of my life to say no."

Two years earlier, Sestic had met the love of his life in Australia - a Macedonian woman who had travelled Down Under but who had since returned home.

Sestic had invited Beti to move to Australia so they could start a life together, and she was all set to relocate before the Kiel contract offer came in.

"She wasn't a huge fan of Australia ... she left her family, her brother and everyone and she decided to come here," Sestic says.

"I could not expect her to now go to Germany. I just could not tell her, now you're dedicated, you've finally decided to come to Australia for me and I'm going to drag you to Europe.

"She obviously meant more than handball to me."

Beti moved to Australia for Sestic in 1999. Picture: Instagram

Beti moved to Australia for Sestic in 1999. Picture: Instagram

The dark years

The Olympics came and went.

Sestic fell out with the coach, who benched him more than once.

Australia didn't win a single game, and the handball fire in Sestic's belly all but extinguished.

Another contract offer rolled in, this time to play in Qatar, but he swatted that opportunity away as well.

He represented Australia at the 2003 World Championships, then gave the sport up entirely.

"I was lost, they were probably the most depressing years of my life professionally," Sestic reflects.

"The [2004] Olympic Games were coming, I feel sad because maybe I could've continued doing it. What if I took my contract in Qatar as well? So that was five years of dark age.

"You need to deal with it, if you have a bad coach it's your responsibility - you need to grow up, be stronger, be better, rather than make excuses.

"That was my life lesson, blame yourself if things are not right, if you're given a small chance, take it. That shook me a lot."

Again, family helped Sestic through his basement years.

In 2003 he and Beti welcomed their daughter Ana into the world. Five years later, Aleks came along.

But there was still a ball of competitive energy welling up inside Sestic, and without handball there was no outlet.

Until he discovered coffee.

"There was no crazy reason why coffee, it was probably if I can say the best of the bunch that I could find in hospitality," Sestic says.

"I could make coffee, create something really cool, I could talk to people, I could say this tastes really good. I was getting the satisfaction, when I make something they like, it makes me happy.

"Late 2007 I heard there was a barista competition. I didn't know such things existed. I went there to watch the first one and I felt a little bit alive. You can compete! This is really cool."

Ona Coffee was born, while he also set up Project Origin, an ever-growing Canberra-based company which sustainably sources green beans from coffee farmers around the world.

All of that focus he'd spent a lifetime devoting to handball shifted to coffee.

In 2015 he won the World Barista Championship.

Sestic with daughter Ana (left), son Aleks and wife Beti. Picture: Instagram

Sestic with daughter Ana (left), son Aleks and wife Beti. Picture: Instagram

Returning to handball

As Sestic carved a reputation as one of the world's leading coffee visionaries, his long smouldering handball embers found new life after a delayed 20-year Sydney 2000 reunion with his old teammates back in March.

He started training again with his son Alex, and last month travelled to the Gold Coast for the National Club Championships representing a combined men's team made up of players from all over Australia.

"More like a refugee team," he jokes.

At 42 years of age, he was the competition's fifth leading goalscorer.

Sestic was also asked to coach the Canberra women's team, and led them to their first ever club championship.

His love for the sport has returned. He's been watching the action at Tokyo, and unsurprisingly still harbours ambitions to one day wear the green and gold once more.

"My son Alex, he's been playing handball a lot with me locally, he's 13 years old, to have that opportunity to play the sport that meant everything to me with my boy, it's just an awesome experience," Sestic says.

"For me personally, I'd love to continue playing as long as I can. Maybe, see how my fitness goes and I'll see how I go in the nationals, if I'm good enough maybe even joining the Australia national team.

"That's my small handball story for now."

This story 'You don't want to be looking through the gun at your uncle': Sestic's remarkable handball journey first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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