Olympics: Superb Stjepanovic just falls short of podium finish
LONDON // Velimir Stjepanovic, the Dubai-based student, confirmed his newly acquired status as one of the leading swimmers in the world as he finished sixth in the final of the 200m butterfly at London 2012 last night.
For much of the past year, the Abu Dhabi-born Serbian has been vying for space with other swimmers in the small school pool at Raffles Dubai South Campus, in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab.
Last night he found himself competing for places with Michael Phelps, one of the all-time great Olympians, and Chad le Clos, the Commonwealth champion from South Africa, as well as five other of the world's leading swimmers.
As a marker of the pedigree against which Stjepanovic was competing in the race, Phelps equalled the all-time record for the most Olympic medals won, yet still had to settle for silver when he was just beaten to the wall by Le Clos in a sensational finish.
Phelps later became the most successful Olympian ever when he helped the United States to the gold medal in the men's 4x200 metres freestyle relay in the last race of the night at the Aquatics Centre, winning the 19th medal of his storied career.
Stjepanovic, who deferred entry to his first year of university in Dubai to focus on pursuing his Olympic dream, had reached the halfway point in third, but eventually placed sixth in a time of one minute, 55.07 seconds.
Given the form he has shown over the past year, it is unlikely many of his rivals underrated him, but Stjepanovic was certainly little heralded beyond his field before this week.
The man himself acknowledged he had enjoyed a great thrill in signing autographs during his time in London, even if his profile does remain someway short of that of Phelps.
"The opening ceremony was amazing," said Stjepanovic, 18. "It is just a class experience to be involved [in the Olympics].
"Even though you are not known, you can go and sign a little kid's paper and that will make their day just because you are an Olympian.
"You don't even need to be someone huge, it is just the fact you are an Olympian that makes them happy. It is a really nice thing to see.
"It was amazing to be inside the stadium and to see what was happening with the torch being lit."
Since he first started to emerge as an international standard swimmer, the Serbian swimming federation have subsidised Stjepanovic's travel to international competition. They also oversaw the final phase of his preparation for London 2012 at a training camp in Serbia over the past month.
However, the success of the former Jumeirah College schoolboy in reaching the Olympic final has undoubtedly been a triumph for expatriate Dubai.
Chris Tidey, the coach who first encountered Stjepanovic when he was a 12 year old who was not even the fastest swimmer in his age group in Dubai, says his charge deserves admiration for the commitment he has shown to his sport over the past six years.
"There is only so much you can do just to impress somebody else," Tidey said of Stjepanovic's attitude towards self-improvement. "If I wanted to impress a girl, I might write her a card or cook her dinner.
"I wouldn't cook her a five-course meal every day for six years, then wake up at 5am and make her eggs benedict for breakfast. There is only so long you can do something for other people. You have to do it for yourself and want it for yourself."
Stjepanovic had posted faster times than both Le Clos and Phelps on his way through the heats on Monday morning, yet it was the South African who surprisingly won the gold by 0.05 seconds.
"I've been dreaming of that since I was a little boy," a tearful Le Clos said in a television interview after the race. "He [Phelps] was my hero. I didn't expect to win, I just wanted to race him in the final and I won. I can't believe it."
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