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Velimir Stjepanovic trains for the Fina World Championships, which start next week in Dubai.
Velimir Stjepanovic trains for the Fina World Championships, which start next week in Dubai.

Stjepanovic ready to swim with the big fish

The UAE-born junior champion talks to Sarah Tregoning about making the step up to senior level at the World Championships.

Velimir Stjepanovic, the Abu Dhabi-born swimming sensation, is the world's top 100 metre freestyle competitor in his age group. But next week he will become a small fish in a big pond when he attempts the all-important breakthrough from junior to senior competition at the 10th Fina World Swimming Championships (25m) in Dubai.

The 17-year-old, who lives with his family in Dubai, is making his final preparations for his tilt at the freestyle and butterfly events in the first short-course championships he has contested.

"The short-course world championships are a big deal for me because it will be the biggest open competition I have entered," said the swimmer, who does all his training in the UAE and is a student at Jumeirah College. "This will be my biggest 'rested' competition [when an athlete runs down training to ensure optimum performance] so far."

Stjepanovic, who swims for Serbia, will be one of the youngest competitors in Dubai and is no stranger to success in the pool. He won gold in the 100m butterfly and silver in the 100m freestyle at the European Youth Championships last year.

Earlier this year he claimed silver in the 100m freestyle and bronze in the 100m butterfly at the Youth Olympics in Singapore, while back in 2008 he cleaned up at the British Nationals, returning to the UAE with four golds in the 100m and 200m freestyle and butterfly events.

He is ranked No 1 in his age category for the 100m freestyle and third in the world for the 100m butterfly yet Stjepanovic knows that the leap from junior to open competition is one that many swimmers fail to make.

"It's going to be tough, I know that, but the jump is one I have to make to achieve my goals," he said.

Ambitious Stjepanovic will use the December 15 to 19 event at the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex as a stepping stone to achieving his wider goals - the biggest of which are to swim at the London 2012 Olympics and win a medal at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

"I have my goals set out," said Stjepanovic. "There is the European Junior Championships in Belgrade in July next year which will obviously be a big event for me as it's in front of my home crowd.

"I finish school next year so I have a decision to make as to where I will go to university to continue my training - whether it will be here or in the US - and I am also focused on the 2012 Olympics but my main goal is to get a medal in 2016."

Stjepanovic's coach Chris Tidey, who owns Dubai-based Hamilton Swimming, said the youngster's goals were achievable. Stjepanovic has competed at two open World Series events this year in Berlin and Moscow and is making the step from junior to open swimming.

"It's a change in mindset," said Tidey, a former Great Britain breaststroke swimmer and the swimming coach at Cambridge University before coming to the UAE almost five years ago.

"It's his first time in these types of competition so there is an adjustment to be made. Everything is going well though, he has been achieving his time goals and I have observed that he is beginning to realise what a big step-up this transition will be.

"Velimir is certainly capable of a medal in 2016. Swimmers tend to mature a little later and he is still very young. He may still need a little more development by the time 2012 rolls around, but he is a very dedicated and hard-working athlete with absolutely the right mindset to achieve his goals."

Stjepanovic may be young but he has already made major sacrifices in his quest for swimming honours. He spends five hours a day in the pool and most days goes straight to training from school, cramming in homework sessions between the two. He also eats 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day to fuel his long stints in the water.

"It's hectic and hard work but I believe it's worth it to get where I want to go," he said. "I have Fridays off completely and then I just relax and hang out with my friends. I tend to eat what I want but I always make sure it's the whole wheat version of bread or pasta and I have fruit and vegetables and only eat red meat once per week.

"The right nutrition can improve performance by five per cent and that's a huge amount so I steer clear of junk food and fizzy drinks."

Tidey said his charge was a good example to other youngsters in the UAE and heralded the hosting of the world swimming championships as an important step in the UAE's swimming development.

"Stjepanovic is proof that you can live and train solely in the UAE and be an elite sportsman," he said. "The facilities here are first class and the fact that the 25m Fina World Swimming Championships are being hosted here proves that. When I came here four-and-a-half years ago I came with the intention of helping to produce world-class swimmers

"Some people said it was impossible to do that in the UAE as people did not have the right attitude.

"Today in our club we have 16 swimmers who qualified for the British Nationals and eight swimmers who have won medals in their national competition in their home country.

"There is plenty of talent here and the motivation to succeed and this event will promote the sport even more."

sports@thenational.ae

Details

What: Fina World Swimming Championships
When: From Wednesday December 15 until Sunday December 19
Where: Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex, Dubai
Time: Daily from 10am (heats) and 7pm (finals)
Tickets: Log on to www.boxofficeme.ae or www.dubaiswimming2010.ae

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