x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Olympics: Dubai-based Stjepanovic reaches final of 200m butterfly

Velimir Stjepanovic, the lifelong UAE resident who learnt how to swim in the school pools of Dubai, will compete in tonight's 200 metres butterfly final.

Serbia's Velimir Stjepanovic, who lives and trains in the UAE, was most impressive in his morning heat, when he even took the TV commentators by surprise. Leon Neal / AFP
Serbia's Velimir Stjepanovic, who lives and trains in the UAE, was most impressive in his morning heat, when he even took the TV commentators by surprise. Leon Neal / AFP

LONDON // Velimir Stjepanovic, the lifelong UAE resident who learnt how to swim in the school pools of Dubai, will compete in tonight's 200 metres butterfly final after a stunning performance at the Olympic Aquatics Centre yesterday.

The Abu Dhabi-born swimmer, who competes for his parents' homeland, broke the Serbian national record in his morning heat, then finished fourth fastest in his semi-final to edge through to the final.

Stjepanovic announced himself early in the morning as he shocked swimming's established order by winning a heat which also involved Chad le Clos, the Commonwealth champion, and Wu Peng, the Chinese medal hopeful who ended the day by missing the final.

Despite qualifying for London 2012 with what was then the fastest time in the world this year back in March, the Dubai-based teenager still ranks as an outsider in a high-class field at this level.

The manner in which he won his heat, in a time of one minute 54.99 seconds - over half a second faster than Michael Phelps managed in the following heat - even caught the BBC's commentators unawares.

His name was not even mentioned until midway through the race, by which time he held a comfortable lead over his more recognised counterparts.

Even then, Adrian Moorhouse, the British former Olympic gold medallist turned pundit, was incredulous.

"I can't imagine this guy is going to maintain this pace," he said, before adding "wow - good job" when the unheralded Serbian touched the wall first moments later.

Even the former Jumeirah College schoolboy himself was slightly surprised by his strong form in the heat, as he does not consider himself to be a morning swimmer.

He had been able to acclimatise to the atmosphere within the 17,000 capacity Aquatics Centre a day earlier when he swam the second leg of Serbia's 4x100m freestyle relay.

But he said competing individually in his favoured butterfly event brought with it considerably more pressure.

"It was actually very different from [Sunday], because that was a relay while this was individual, so it was totally on me," Stjepanovic said.

"It was a lot more nerve-racking. My hands were full of pins and needles before the race. I got in and raced and ended up feeling really good. It was a fantastic time and I am really happy with it.

"I did feel really good, which is why I pushed it out, to see where I could go. That was a pretty good time for a morning swim."

While the likes of Phelps, Le Clos and the other favourites appeared to be cruising through qualifying, Stjepanovic went all out to make sure he finished within the fastest 16.

"Because I was in the first of the big three heats, so the top 21 [in the world] I wanted to give it everything I had got," he said. "I did feel pretty good after the race, and there are a few places I can pick up a few points."

According to Chris Tidey, the coach who has overseen Stjepanovic's rise from a 12-year-old schoolboy in Dubai all the way up to Olympian, just reaching the semi-final represented mission accomplished.

"He is in a good space mentally," the former Great Britain swimmer said. "I am happy with where he is. We came to London wanting to get into the semi-finals. We have achieved that."

Stjepanovic's morning form meant he had the best lane draw for his evening semi-final, and relegated Phelps to lane three.

However, the great United States Olympian returned to form in the race by coming home in the fastest time of the semi-final.

Ominously for his rivals, he warned he can still go faster after being distracted halfway through the race.

"I made a mistake by trying to check my split [time] at 100m," Phelps said.

Also in the pool, a 15-year-old schoolgirl claimed a first ever swimming gold medal for Lithuania in the 100 metres breaststroke.

Ruta Meilutyte led from start to finish to touch in one minute 05.47 seconds as she held off a fast-finishing Rebecca Soni, the Beijing silver medallist.

Meilutyte is coached by Jon Rudd at Plymouth Leander on England’s south-west coast while studying at Plymouth College, the school also attended by the diver Tom Daley.

“I cannot believe it,” Meilutyte told BBC. “It’s too much for me.”

Looking at the camera and speaking in Lithuanian, she told her father in Plymouth: “Thank-you. I love you.”

Meilutyte, who used her early speed off the blocks, held on to her lead despite Soni’s desperate finishing lunge at the wall. Japan’s Satomi Suzuki was third.

“I knew it was going to come down to the last five metres and I wish I had five more metres, but it was a good race overall,” said Soni.The start of the final was delayed by a technical malfunction forcing the American Breeja Larson prematurely into the water.

“The start was definitely interesting, we were all put off in the same way, I felt sorry for Breeja, who actually jumped in the water,” she said. “It is what it is.”

Larson at first feared she would be disqualified for a false start.

“I was worried about a DQ [disqualification] at first, I went into the water and my heart sank,” she said. “I got ready for my mark and it was just the swimmers reaction to go. No one else went, I came up and I am glad they didn’t keep swimming.”

Earlier, Yannick Agnel shredded a star-studded field to win the men’s 200m freestyle gold, one day after his sensational swim gave France the Olympic 4x100m freestyle title.

Agnel won France’s third swimming gold of the Games in 1:43.14 as Asian rivals Park Tae-Hwan of South Korea and Sun Yang of China shared silver behind him. The reigning world champion Ryan Lochte, a dominant winner in the men’s 400m medley, was relegated to fourth place.

It was Agnel’s second successive victory over Lochte, who was anchoring the US 4x100m freestyle relay on Sunday when Agnel surged past him in the final 50m to give France the gold medal– avenging their narrow loss to the Americans four years ago in Beijing.

“He is a great racer, there is no doubt about it,” Lochte said of Agnel. “He’s quick, he showed it last night and again tonight..”

The American sensation Missy Franklin produced a rousing finish to overhaul Australian Emily Seebohm and win the women’s 100m backstroke final.

Franklin only swam minutes earlier in another event but still had enough to finish the better to down Seebohm in 58.33 seconds.

The 17 year old from Colorado could swim four individual events and three relays in London, a programme that could make her the first US woman to swim seven events at one Olympics.

Matt Grevers led a US one-two finish in the men’s 100m backstroke, capturing gold in an Olympic record of 52.16 seconds. America’s Nick Thoman grabbed silver and Japan’s Ryosuke Irie the bronze.

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