Size matters for Dubai swimmer Stjepanovic as he heads for Shanghai
Velimir Stjepanovic, possibly the fastest 17-year-old swimmer in the world, is heading for the world championships in China and has his sights set on a gold medal at the Olympics.
Stjepanovic returned to Dubai last week after winning the 100 metres butterfly and 100m freestyle at the European Junior Swimming Championships in Serbia, the country he represents at international level, despite being smaller than almost everyone he leaves in his slipstream.
Today the former Jumeirah College pupil, along with his coach Chris Tidey of the Hamilton Aquatics club, will travel to Shanghai for the World Long Course Swimming Championships.
Tidey is convinced his protege is good enough to win a medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil - perhaps even a gold.
Stjepanovic's times are fast enough and his work ethic has never been in question (three hours after arriving home from Serbia at 4am he was back in the pool). The one problem for him is that he stands only 5ft 10ins (1.78m) tall, in a sport where size does matter. "What it meant to win the two gold medals only really hit me the day after the championships ended," he said. "I'm really proud of what I achieved.
"I won events that are usually taken by much bigger guys. I put some pictures of me on Facebook and the guys who finished second and third in the 100m freestyle look about a foot taller than me."
Tidey would like to see one more growth spurt from Stjepanovic, who has been a small sensation.
"He is still a little boy. You only have to look at him standing beside the other guys," Tidey said. "He has a bit of growing to do. He has yet to fill out.
"Once we add all that up and consider that most sprinters are two inches taller and have 15kg on him, I am very hopeful there is a lot more to come."
Stjepanovic said more height would be a plus, but believes he can win without it.
"I'm not too worried about my size," he said. "I'm hoping I can grow more but, even if I don't, I still think I can pull through and get to where I want to go."
The coach said Stjepanovic's recent performance in Serbia is a good indication of future success.
"When you look back at previous results from the European juniors, the top three tend to be guaranteed to go on and do something special in the Olympics, so Velimir has a bright future," he said.
"I believe he is the fastest in the world for 100m freestyle for boys born in 1993. He is second or third fastest for the 100m fly."
Tidey said he actually expected four medals from the junior championships. "I'm a hard task master," he said. "I expected a medal in the 400m freestyle but he messed up in the semi-final when he misjudged the pace. Without making excuses, he was in the slowest of the three heats and that was unfortunate. We are 98 per cent sure he would have [won a medal] if he had got into the final and I'm 70 per cent sure that he would have won it. So it was a harsh lesson learnt. It's good he did that at junior level."
Stjepanovic is a junior no more and he will be up against the best swimmers on the planet at the world championships, scheduled for July 24 to 31.
Representing Serbia, he will compete in the 200m butterfly, 400m freestyle and the 4 x 200m freestyle relay. "I am going to Shanghai for the experience and it will be good for my development," Stjepanovic said. "The atmosphere is going to be incredible. I want some personal bests and I'm sure I can get that in the 400 freestyle if I can get my turns right.
"As for results, I am just thinking semi-finals at best. This is a real step up in class, but it's going to be great for me."
Stjepanovic will take almost two weeks off for a rest when he returns to the UAE at the start of August.
Then he has the best part of a year to dedicate himself to trimming his times in preparation for the London Olympics where he is hoping to qualify for a number of races. Stjepanovic and his coach enjoy a good relationship even if Tidey, by his own admission, never stops pushing his swimmer, who trains seven days a week.
Most of Stjepanovic's drive comes from within, but he stills needs a quite word now and then from Tidey, the Hamilton Aquatics owner who represented Great Britain as a swimmer.
"Velimir puts himself under a lot of pressure and in Belgrade the Serbian press were very demanding of his time," Tidey said. "On the fourth day he really switched off and was in a terrible mood.
"For me, a lot of my job is about knowing what to say to your swimmer and when to say it. I also need to know when to back off. We have a relationship going back five years now and that enables me to talk to him."