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Danijela Jovanovic stood on top of Mount Elbrus

Danijela Jovanovic stood on top of Mount Elbrus

One woman is helping to change the face of disability in Serbia.

BELGRADE | Danijela Jovanovic stood on top of Mount Elbrus, Europe’s tallest mountain, feeling a bit worried. There was the threat of strong winds or even a sudden storm. “But when I saw that there was no reason to fear, I gave myself over to the natural surroundings and enjoyed myself,” she said recently.

She had been dogged on the way up to the 5,642-meter peak, passing other tired hikers. It was an impressive performance for a petite 40-year-old, but even more so for one born without hands or feet.

In early August, Jovanovic became the first disabled woman in the world to conquer Mount Elbrus, which lies in the Russian North Caucasus.

“I had been preparing hard for climbing Elbrus,” said Jovanovic, who trained every day after her shift ended at a Belgrade restaurant. She said the climb “was easy as pie” and didn’t present any physical problems.

Jovanovic’s coach, Slobodan Stokic, a trainer at an extreme sports club, said his protégé conquered Mount Elbrus with ease, which makes her a candidate for climbing higher peaks, possibly even Mount Everest.

“While the others in the expedition sometimes had difficulty breathing or felt tired, Danijela passed every section of the way with great ease and adjusted well to the extreme climate conditions,” said Stokic, whose climb of Mount Elbrus in 2007 helped him repeat the journey with Jovanovic this year.

Stokic explained that Jovanovic’s prosthetic hands and feet aren’t necessarily a major handicap in mountain climbing, because unlike other climbers she has no trouble with blood circulation in her extremities. He said a training session with her is not much different from usual training sessions but acknowledged that going on expedition with her brings greater responsibilities.


Jovanovic, who was also born with a jaw deformity, was abandoned by her parents immediately after birth. She spent most of her childhood in homes for abandoned children or with foster families. The longest single stay was at a center for the mentally disabled in the Belgrade suburb of Sremcica, where she was placed at age 11. Since 2003, she has lived in an apartment with three other disabled adults, thanks to a private project aimed at helping disabled people live independently.

Psychologist Zarko Trebjesanin, a professor at Belgrade University’s department of special education and rehabilitation, said some families are ashamed of their disabled members or perceive them as a burden. A government’s indifference to their plight only reinforces such thinking. But he said over the past few years the treatment of handicapped people has been improving in Serbia, citing the growing number of disabled students at universities as an example.

Stokic said, “Danijela grew up with people who are mentally challenged, so she was never able to fully develop her mental and abstract capacities. She wasn’t even able to attend school. It’s truly amazing how quickly Danijela transformed into a highly capable person through sports.”

Jovanovic showed up for a recent interview smiling and dressed in a track suit. Her prosthetic feet were obvious at a glance. Though she does not usually wear prosthetic hands, she has amazing dexterity with her wrists, handling an incoming call on her mobile phone during the interview with no problem.

Jovanovic said she only really started living after she left the facility in Sremcica. “Six years ago, when I first went to the seaside, they couldn’t make me get out of the water. Only then did I really start living. I learned to swim, but more importantly I realized that I could achieve everything I had been dreaming of for years,” she said.

Jovanovic doesn’t like to talk about her life in foster care and institutions. So the conversation quickly switched to her athletic achievements, and the smile returned.

Even before taking up climbing, Jovanovic said she had been running and playing tennis and basketball. “There are many sports disabled people can do. All they have to do is try and they’ll see it’s possible,” she said.


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