x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Dubai college teen swimmer plots world route for Olympic success

Velimir Stjepanovic has decided that a gap year is what he needs to improve his times and reach the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London as a swimmer for Serbia.

Velimir Stjepanovic, an Olympic hopeful and high school student at Jumeirah College, will take a year off from studies to concentrate on the London Games for Serbia.
Velimir Stjepanovic, an Olympic hopeful and high school student at Jumeirah College, will take a year off from studies to concentrate on the London Games for Serbia.

Velimir Stjepanovic is typical of many young people who are finishing high school. He plans to take a gap year to visit places such as Stockholm, Moscow, Berlin, Singapore and Beijing.

The one big difference is the Dubai-born teenager is visiting such locations not to broaden his horizons but rather to find out just how fast a swimmer he can become before he heads to next year's London Olympics.

There will be no backpacking for this 17 year old. No time for sightseeing nor bungee jumping.

Instead, he will be training and testing himself at World Cup swimming events around the world.

Stjepanovic, who attends Jumeirah College high school, may be one of the few people to take a year out who is going to work harder than if they went to university or got a full-time job.

But when you are one of the top three swimmers in the world for your age, as this teenager is, and have dedicated your life to the pursuit of Olympic glory, then holidays can wait a few years.

The swimming prodigy, who represents Serbia at international level, has already achieved two qualification times good enough to get him to the England capital for the 2012 Games.

The rest of his life has been put on hold so he can become even quicker between now and then.

"I realised a while ago that every time there is a holiday from school, my training goes a lot better and my times have come down," Stjepanovic said.

"So a gap year will really help me focus to try harder in training and the outcome will hopefully be better.

"We [coach Chris Tidey] came to the decision of a gap year some time ago because it makes good sense. It's perfect timing for the Olympics because I will now have a full year to prepare for the London Games."

Stjepanovic has already achieved the B Olympic Qualifying time - set for the smaller countries such as Serbia - for the 400-metre freestyle and 200m butterfly.

He has now set his sights on the 100m butterfly, the 100m and 200m freestyle and, possibly, the 50m freestyle, too.

Asked what is his strongest event, Stjepanovic said: "It depends on who you ask. My best event at the moment is the 100m free. Last year, I was ranked first for my age group in the world for the 100m freestyle. That was my best race and I'm getting better.

"I will get better competition experience at the World Cup events in Moscow, Singapore and the rest. When there is school, I just don't have the time for that."

Stjepanovic is not setting himself unrealistic expectations for next summer.

"I would like to get to a semi-final in 2012," he said. "That's being realistic because I don't think I'll be good enough to reach a final at that age.

"My aim for an Olympic medal will be 2016 in Brazil."

Before then, Stjepanovic will compete in the Shanghai World Cup next month and the European Juniors in Belgrade.

The latter promises to be an emotional occasion for the son of Serbian parents. "That [the European Juniors] is going to be an amazing experience," Stjepanovic said. "I will be so proud to represent Serbia."

Stjepanovic was born and raised in Dubai after his father moved to the UAE for a job in engineering. He qualifies to represent the UAE on birth and residency grounds.

"I chose Serbia, it's not like they choose me," Stjepanovic said. "I could have swum for other countries, but while I was born and grew up in the UAE, that is where we come from. I believe our roots are from Serbia."

The potential of Stjepanovic was spotted five years ago by Tidey, owner of Hamilton Aquatics Club in Dubai. Tidey represented the UK on eight occasions and was the swimming coach at Cambridge University before coming to the UAE almost five years ago.

"What caught my eye? It was the way he moved in the water." Tidey said. "He was one of those kids who made it look really natural."

Stjepanovic started to realise his potential when he travelled to England with his then club, Gems Swimming Academy, for an overseas competition. His first competition out side the UAE yielded silver and bronze medals and the top boy award.

"After the trip to England we had a proper talk about where he could go next," Tidey said.

Stjepanovic takes up the story. "Chris sat me down and told me that I could be really good if I trained properly.

"So I decided then that I would stop everything I had been doing before, tennis, basketball, football and some others sports, to concentrate on my swimming."

Tidey has harnessed his talent since, overseeing the punishing early morning 90-minute training sessions and the two-and-a-half hour evening stints in the pool.

"I am a fairly strict person, but I don't push Velimir and neither do his parents," Tidey said. "This all comes from him. He is the one who wants to do this.

"I have had his mum, Anna, down for an early morning session and she's got angry with me for all the work I make Velimir do, but the determination comes from him.

"I know of maybe five swimmers in our club who have more natural ability than Velimir. But none come even close to his hard work.

"The thing about this year out is that he can train full time and we're getting more professional swimmers to come to Dubai and that will push him on. Because there will be no school or university, he can train and eat at the right times. There will be no obstacles in his way.

"The fact that he has managed to juggle school and swimming, but still pull off some incredible times is amazing.

"He's in the top three in the world for the 100m free and that's without him resting.

"I am quite good at predicting a swimmer's progress, but sometimes Velimir goes right off the chart. Over the next year we are bringing in a proper sports scientist and nutritionist, and with school out of the way he can start to eat at the right times."

Stjepanovic is not the most strapping of swimmers yet punched above his weight at the Fina World Championships in Dubai in December. "That was my chance to race people who were physically much bigger than me, but I did OK," Stjepanovic said.

"My best placing was 25th for the 200m butterfly and to be top 25 in the world is pretty good.

"I rated 25 to 45 for all my races and I was really pleased with that. I know I'm not the biggest, but what I hope is that after I take a 10-day break after the Shanghai World Cup in July, that I'll grow three centimetres."

After last year's youth Olympics, he grew almost two centimetres in two weeks. All the energy he used up stretches the body when it is at rest, according to Stjepanovic.

Sporting glasses and being extremely mild mannered, Stjepanovic does not immediately strike you as one of the top teenagers in world swimming. He is confident but not arrogant.

"I was never the loud person," Stjepanovic said. "I was always the guy in class who never said anything. I would rather sit back and listen."

Ash Morris, the head coach at Hamilton Aquatics, claims Stjepanovic maintains the right balance in his mental attitude

"To be at the top, and this goes especially for sprinters, you need a bit of ego, some arrogance," Morris said. "It's all part of the banter.

"But there is a line between being hated, which some people are, and being part of racing itself."

Hugh Thomas, a physical education teacher at Jumeirah College, praised Stjepanovic's work ethic.

"Velimir's attitude is superb," Thomas said. "He works hard at his studies and we are all really proud of what he has achieved so far."

Stjepanovic, like any aspiring swimmer, has ambitions to emulate the likes of Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe. But his hero does not come from the pool.

"I love Usain Bolt because he is ridiculously far beyond everyone else," Stjepanovic said. "It's the way he acts on the track that I like. He looks as if he's enjoying himself.

"I read an interview with him the other day and he said that he was going to become a professional footballer after he retires from sprinting because he was 'pretty good at it'. Just like that. You've got to admire his style."

ncameron@thenational.ae