I recently read a post on linkedin from SkysoftATM that they were sponsoring a Skyguide controller who was competing in the recent Ironman World Championships in Kona. In my 'down time' over the summer in the last 8 years I have been involved in organising the Ironman events here in Maastricht. One of my tasks was meeting the international athletes at registration. So many interesting stories from thousands of participants.
I have always been fascinated by the dedication of the athletes that compete and the application and focus that is required to train for an Ironman triathlon where in the full version you need to swim 3.8kms, cycle 180kms and run 42kms.
The controller was Mirjana Neskovic. Currently working for Skyguide in Geneva, Switzerland. We connected and what follows is her story.
How did you first get into ATC and where has your career taken you to? What is it you enjoy about being an ATCO?
At the moment I work as an air traffic controller for Geneva ACC, I’m also active as an instructor/coach, classroom instructor and human factor ATC expert currently engaged in the project of Virtual Center, but my path to here started like this.
Right after high school and right after I finished my professional swimming career I started ATC college when I was 19 in 2000. in Serbia, where I was selected for the area control center-ACC. I fell in love with the job itself from day one as it totally suits my personality. I love how dynamic it is, how you have to think fast on your feet and how exciting it is. I have so much fun moving traffic! After getting all my endorsements I started my university studies again and received a bachelor degree and soon after a Master degree. You never know if you might need that one day and investing in knowledge is a life time commitment for me.
The sky in Serbia is very busy in the upper area, and I enjoyed working there but in 2014. after years of disappointment in my own country and the political system that was not looking to improve any time soon I was ready to leave and to offer my children as a single mother, a better future. The road took me to Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Center, controlling the sky of the UAE. This was the most challenging and the busiest sky I have ever seen, working side by side, and I can say this with such pride, with some of the best controllers in the world, real magicians! Time spent there taught me to sequence the aircraft, hold the aircraft, change my plan in the last minute, fight the fatigue on the night shift and endure 8 to 10 insanely busy night shifts per month with 4 different peaks of traffic during night, come up with a solution due to the lack of procedures, work with big and fast machines, work without any traffic flow regulations, without any restrictions, to accept inshallah as a mean of separation for traffic… It also gave me the lessons for life, and more over it gave me friends for a life time. People working there made our days at work brilliant and memorable, and reduced the stress of the Middle East frustrations. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that UAE was the best experience I had both career wise and personal wise. UAE was the place I started doing triathlons. With good weather I had no excuse now. Enthusiasm and desire, love for the sport.
When did you first start competing as a triathlete?
I started road cycling and soon began with Olympic distance triathlons, coaching myself. Triathletes in UAE are very well organized, so united and so so supportive, and there are so many teams, and so many races to choose…Soon after I realized I need advice and a plan from an expert. So I found myself a coach and started preparing for the first 70.3 (half distance) in 2018. The same year, thankfully to my work experience, I got accepted at four different ansp’s Australia, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Qatar. I chose Skyguide and moved to Geneva and started my training for Geneva upper and lower ACC sectors. The sky in Switzerland is pretty busy, the lower airspace below FL250 is extremely complex with different airspace classifications, with mandatory usage of the French language both on the frequency and with adjacent units, with lots of joining and leaving flights… This was tough, learning French from scratch, no previous knowledge, in a short time frame, giving instructions to aircraft in any other language than English slows down your brain and slows down the speed of issuing clearances.
At the same time my addiction to triathlon, but more importantly the addiction to better myself year after year, race after race got stronger. In the past 4 years I have done numerous Olympic distances, 12 half distances and 2 full distances. Triathletes who win have a drive, a fire inside that fuels their passion to achieve a key goal, regardless of their level of talent or ability. It all begins with a vision, and as we see that vision with more clarity, it becomes more likely to turn into reality. Wherever attention goes, energy flows. I want to show my girls that anything is possible if you want it and that health is benefiting you.
Then there are no limits. I hope I will inspire them both and maybe other people along the way that dedication, discipline and determination are the weapons to success, and all you have to aim for is to be better yourself. Getting older, and still being faster and a better person. My races took me to different places, different continents and I met so many inspirational like minded individuals. My races taught me to be humble, to respect the life and to be grateful for every mile I was able to conquer. My races and my job taught me to never quit. That’s not even an option.
What is your proudest moment as an athlete?
There were lots of proud and epic moments in my sporting career, competing the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon and swimming across to San Francisco, swimming the Bosphorus Chanel race and finishing second and challenging myself with Everesting (8848m elevation with no sleep/stop) on my bike. 2 World championships 70.3 - Nice 2019 and Utah 2022, being a Serbian national champion in long distance triathlons for the last 3-4 years, 140.6 in Thun where I qualified for the most famous World Championship 140.6 in Hawaii, Kona. My dream come true, Kona. Kona has tested all my mental and physical force. Arriving only 3 days before the race due to work obligations, not being adapted to the heat and humidity and the jet leg, I suffered extremely on the bike course. Nevertheless I finished it but I’m not happy with my performance, so hopefully in the future I will be able to qualify again and do it properly.
What ambitions do you have for the future with your career and your athletic achievements?
My plans for the next year are for the moment Ironman Hamburg on the 4th of June, and my ambition is to finish it in 10h-10h30min, to better myself on the 70.3 distance at around 4h45min. I would love to race Norseman extreme triathlon, and as I love challenges to swim across La manche and swim around Manhattan island, famous marathons, famous bike route. Sport for me is an addiction, a lifestyle, nothing like sport gives you the sensation of freedom and just feeling alive.
The biggest obstacle to all of this is time. There just isn’t enough time in a day to handle all: working in shifts, family and sport. There has to be a balance, and finding that balance is difficult. Having the support and understanding from your family is crucial for an endurance athlete. I spend between 15-25 hours per week for training depending on how far ahead the race is. With work and being a full time mum it is very hard to obtain sometimes, so my day often starts at 4am so I can cycle a 6hour session (around 200km) or run 35km… but like I said, anything is possible with a correct mindset and pre-planning!
Thank you Mirjana for your time and best of luck this coming year with your events!