x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Olympics: Velimir Stjepanovic is a breath of fresh air

'We were always sure he was capable of big things,' says father after swimmer enters 200m butterfly and competes with Michael Phelps.

Velimir Stjepanovic, the Dubai-raised swimmer, was half a second faster than Michael Phelps and Chad le Clos, the eventual winner, in the 200m butterfly heats. Mohammad Khursheed / Zumapress.com
Velimir Stjepanovic, the Dubai-raised swimmer, was half a second faster than Michael Phelps and Chad le Clos, the eventual winner, in the 200m butterfly heats. Mohammad Khursheed / Zumapress.com

More good news for Velimir Stjepanovic, at the end of a week crammed full of it for the outstanding teenage swimmer from Dubai.

His mother Ana had left her iPad back in the UAE before departing to see her son take on the world in the swimming pool at the Olympics Aquatic Centre.

So no chance to post any proud, mumsy status updates on Facebook.

Phew.

When he qualified for London 2012 back in March, Ana was back in Dubai and could immediately get online to write in Serbian, her native tongue: "Well done Velimir – mum sends her kisses and is crying and laughing at the same time."

Since watching her 18-year-old son finish sixth in a classic 200 metres butterfly final on Sunday night, she has had no time to get back on to the computer.

There is every chance she may discover a few congratulatory messages waiting for her when she does eventually log on. Her boy did her – and the whole of the UAE, let alone Serbia – proud at the Games.

"I haven't been on my Facebook for five days now, since we left Dubai," she said. "The toughest time was when he was in the heats and needed to qualify. My heart was somewhere in my throat.

"When I saw the time, below one minute 55 seconds, I knew it was a big thing for us because that was the goal.

"After that, in the semi-final and final, I did not feel as bad as I did in the heat. Of course you are anxious for him to do well, but it felt better."

On the morning after the night before, the senior Stjepanovics were able to escape Games fever for a while today, as they travelled to Cambridge, around an hour away from Stratford, instead. It was an appropriate lunch destination. When Velimir was 13, and showing serious promise in the school swimming pools of Dubai, he was offered a scholarship to train and study in the English university town.

He had been made aware of the talent he had for the sport, and was offered the chance to join swimming's mainstream, rather than having to battle to make it from a country with little pedigree for the sport. Had he accepted, he may have been representing Great Britain at these Games, rather than Serbia, the homeland of his parents but where he has never actually lived himself.

However, he opted out, because he was not ready to leave his parents. The chances of him ever becoming an Olympian lengthened at a stroke.

This week, though, he has shown it can be done. And how. In the heats of his main event, he swam half a second faster than Michael Phelps, the man with more Olympic medals than anyone else, and Chad le Clos, the brilliant South African who eventually took gold.

In the final, he turned at halfway in third place, before being forced to settle for sixth. No medal, but he had definitely arrived at swimming's top table.

"With his determination and the way he handles things, we were always sure he was capable of big things," said his father Milan, who left what was then Yugoslavia to take a job in construction in Dubai before Velimir was born.

"That is why we have supported him all the way from his childhood. Swimming is not something that brings money, rather it is the opposite.

"We don't care about that, we just wanted to support him all the way through."

Surely the chance to watch their son at a pulsating Aquatics Centre on a night when history was made is reward enough for the sacrifices.

"I thought my heart was going to jump out of my mouth," Milan said. "In the arena, it was impossible to hear yourself with 17,000 people – I thought everything was going to collapse it was so noisy.

"When Velimir stood on the blocks in the final, he looked like a child standing next to giants. Everyone is about 15 centimetres taller than him.

"Their feet are all size 48; Velimir is size 42.

"He has so many disadvantages to make a great result, but he did it, against all odds. I said to my wife that I don't know what kind of heart and mind he has."

Seeing her son standing on the starting blocks alongside seven swimming behemoths, including the man who was at the time two medals away from becoming the most successful Olympian ever with 19, must have been a surreal experience for mother Ana?

"As a parent it is very emotional every time he stands on the blocks," she said.

"It is not just himself. It is all these guys who are the top of the world standing there.

"They are all huge compared to Velimir, who is just a boy. It pushes him, knowing they are better than him, bigger than him, and it gives him such a push to do the best he can. For him to stand there in that line of eight, I was so proud."

pradley@thenational.ae

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