x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Olympics: The cosmopolitan swimmer who is at home in pool

Velimir Stjepanovic was born in Abu Dhabi and raised in Dubai, the teenager who could have swam for Great Britain but opted for his parents homeland of Serbia.

The Dubai-based swimmer chose to represent Serbia, the home country of both his parents.
The Dubai-based swimmer chose to represent Serbia, the home country of both his parents.

Given the fact the Olympics are so overwhelmingly fuelled by patriotism, the general premise of the Games should be easy to follow. Essentially, it pits sportsmen from separate countries against each other, with the ultimate aim of seeing who is best.

The blurred borders of the modern world do not allow for anything quite as simplistic as that, though. For example, the UAE's interest in the swimming competition at London 2012 might have ended after a little over a minute of the first heat of the men's breaststroke yesterday, when Mubarak Salem missed out on advancing to the next phase.

In truth, the interesting bit has only just begun. At lunchtime today, when Serbia go off in search of a place in this evening's 4x100 metre relay final, their effort will be largely reliant on a teenager who was born in Abu Dhabi, brought up in Dubai, and who briefly considered switching his nationality to British.

Velimir Stjepanovic stuck with the land of his parents, even though the last time father Milan and mother Ana actually lived on Serbian soil, before relocating to Dubai for work, it was still part of Yugoslavia.

Indeed, the story of Stjepanovic's rise from swimming novice to Olympian reads more like a geography lesson than a tale of sporting endeavour.

It is a good job London 2012 is being staged in Newham, which is one of the most multicultural boroughs in the UK. Anything goes here. So much so that you sort of expect to see two UAE-based Englishmen walking through the shopping mall which marks the entrance to the Olympic Park wearing accreditation affiliating them to Serbia.

"It is a work in progress," Chris Tidey, the managing director of Hamilton Aquatics, the Dubai-based institution which has overseen Stjepanovic's emergence to the top stage, says of his command of the Serbian language.

He has probably picked up the odd word, however, given that his club have forged strong links to the Balkan Republic of late.

The Serbian relay team secured their place on the start line for today via a competition in Hungary earlier this year, which they prepared for with an intensive training camp on Stjepanovic's patch in Dubai.

For the past month, the former Jumeirah College schoolboy and his coach have been in Belgrade fine-tuning preparations for the Games under the view of Serbia's Olympic Committee.

Anything the Serbian quartet can achieve in the relay will be a bonus for the 18 year old from Dubai. However, his main focus is on the 200m butterfly competition, the heats of which start tomorrow.

The fact he is seen as a potential finalist in that event is remarkable, given how humble the beginnings of his swimming career were.

When he first joined the newly-established Hamilton Aquatics club in Dubai six years ago, he was not even among the fastest swimmers in his age group. It did not take long for the penny to drop.

"When I turned 12 I started training under [Tidey], and I went to my first overseas meet, a small one in England," Stjepanovic said. "I won a couple of golds and some silvers, and that is when he sat me down and said: 'Look, you could be really good if you train properly'. That's when I stopped everything else to focus purely on swimming."

Making his way in a country which hitherto had exhibited little pedigree in the swimming pool, all the way to the Olympics, has been a triumph of dedication and commitment.

Tidey admits he has worked his charge so hard at times that Stjepanovic's mother has been unable to watch.

"Part of [Stjepanovic's talent] is genetic, what he has inherited from his parents," said Tidey, who represented Great Britain during his own competitive swimming career. "Part of it is down to the disciplines we do in training, just pushing the mental boundaries of what somebody is capable of.

"There are times when Ana, his mother, has walked off and said, 'Why are you doing this to my son?'"

One particular memory sticks in the coach's mind.

"I give the swimmers a week's notice when we are going to do the hardest session of the year," Tidey said. "Going back two years now, Ana hadn't been down to the pool to watch for about five months and she ended up coming to watch the hardest session of the year, strangely enough.

"After the session, she walked off and said she would never come back to watch, and said, 'I can't watch you do this to my son.' I set the boundaries and the guidelines, but he is the one pushing himself."

Stjepanovic's single-minded focus in the water is the polar opposite of his relaxed demeanour out of it. While he has always been able to go about his business unaffected by adulation or fame in Dubai, it is a different story in Serbia.

He may be some way short of Novak Djokovic-style celebrity, but he is still well known, even though he is a local hero by correspondence for the people of Serbia for most of the time.

Much is expected of him, but he has attempted to try to defer expectations on him in Stratford, suggesting he should be better equipped to medal by the time the Rio Olympics arrives in four years time. "I can deal with pressure, I just don't need added pressure," he said.

What cannot be denied is Stjepanovic is a fine role model for a sport that could certainly do with a few of them in Dubai.

"It is difficult competing against football" Tidey said. "I think everyone in Dubai supports Barcelona. Everybody wants to be Lionel Messi.

"All the parents want their children to go into football or tennis, because of the big events that come [to the UAE].

"We are doing all we can to promote swimming. We want to create a conveyor belt so we can create three more of these [swimmers of Stjepanovic's standard] in every four-year cycle."

pradley@thenational.ae

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