Nowhere to Run : Civil War in Yugoslavia, Lack of U.S. Citizenship Diminish Olympic Prospects of Northridge's Vujic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sasha Vujic of Cal State Northridge is a runner caught between two countries.

Vujic, a senior from Burroughs High, ran a personal best of 3 minutes 41.23 seconds to win the 1,500 meters in the Santa Monica Distance Classic at Santa Monica College on Saturday night.

The school-record time exceeded the automatic qualifying standard (3:41.35) for next month's U. S. Olympic trials in New Orleans. However, Vujic is ineligible to run there because he is not a U. S. citizen, even though he has lived in the United States since he was 2.

Vujic is a citizen of the former country of Yugoslavia, having been born in Krusevac, which is about 100 miles southeast of Belgrade. He applied for U. S. citizenship in January because he wanted dual citizenship, but he will not be eligible to become a citizen until September.

"I could have done this years ago," Vujic said. "My mom has had the proper papers for a long time, but she never got around to filling them out. She was just always busy with something else."

Vujic, who speaks fluent Serbian, has investigated the possibility of representing Yugoslavia or Serbia in the Olympics this summer, but his chances appear remote. The Yugoslav Olympic Committee informed him that he must run under 3:40 to automatically qualify for the Yugoslav team.

Complicating his quest for a berth in the Olympics is the fighting in his homeland. At one point, he considered traveling to Europe to run a trials race for a place on the Yugoslav national team.

However, with bloodshed continuing among several factions in Vujic's homeland, neither Yugoslavia nor any of the newly declared republics seems likely to send teams to the Games in Barcelona.

"It's too bad," Vujic said. "Things are really bad over there."

Vujic said Laker center Vlade Divac, a patron of the restaurant that Vujic's mother Lily owns in Burbank, told Lily that Yugoslav officials did not allow him to return home recently because they felt conditions were too dangerous.

Although Vujic is unsure about his racing plans this summer, his time Saturday also automatically qualified him for the NCAA Division I championships in Austin, Tex., next week. The mark also lowered his previous best of 3:45.08 and broke the Northridge record of 3:43.42, set by Will James in 1987.

"Everything just came together," said Vujic, who outkicked Kenyan Jimma Roba for the victory. "I've been waiting to get into the right race for a few weeks now, and Saturday night was it.

"I heard my time (with 400 meters to go), and I just said to myself, 'OK. You've got to run your last (400) in 58 seconds to qualify for nationals. No problem.' "

While Vujic is frustrated by his predicament, he takes solace in his effort Saturday. His time converts to a 3:58.93 mile.

"Finally qualifying for nationals is a big monkey off my back," he said. "I wanted to prove to everybody that I'm for real, and I feel like I finally did that."

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