Training hard in the UAE, the Serb has few distractions to speak of as he prepares for the Rio Games in 2016, writes Paul Radley.
Stjepanovic immerses himself in a bubble in Dubai
As Velimir Stjepanovic sits down to discuss his past, present and future as an Olympic swimmer he could barely be further – geographically, chronologically or metaphorically – from the Games.
This month is halfway between the London Games, when he swam his way into the limelight as a new butterfly star, and Rio de Janeiro, where he hopes to win a medal.
As he sits on a small bank of dusty bleachers beside the pool at the Gems International School adjacent to the busy Al Khail Road in Dubai, the place is deserted except for a few swimmers at different stages of the development process.
Two toddlers finish a swim-babies starter class in the small pool, before a group of elite athletes adjourn from land-conditioning outside to do lengths of the 25-metre main pool.
It is a long way from the Olympic Aquatics Centre at London 2012 when Stjepanovic competed in the most thrilling final of the Games.
It is certainly quieter than the noise of a frenzied, 17,000-strong crowd.
“In the heats and the semis it was pretty laid back in terms of the call room, everyone was chatting,” Stjepanovic says. “Then for the finals, it was absolutely silent. You could hear a pin drop.
“Then you could hear the roar for Michael Phelps, that roar compared to the silence in the call room ... even through our hats and our concentration, it was still immense. It gave you pins and needles.”
Stjepanovic, 20, who was born in Abu Dhabi, raised in Dubai, and competes for Serbia (his parents’ homeland) was ahead of his schedule when he finished sixth in the 200m butterfly in London.
Before those Games, he had played down expectations, saying it was all part of the longer journey leading up to Rio.
Since then, the path has not been smooth. A chronic back complaint meant he was forced to take 12 months off from butterfly specific training from September 2012.
The detrimental effects of the break have been minimal, though, judging by his performances since returning to competition.
His butterfly times are back to where they were in 2012, while he has since also become a serious contender in freestyle.
At the Eindhoven Cup in the Netherlands last month, he set new Serbian national records in the 200m and 400m freestyle, placing him seventh fastest in the world in the process.
“I think it might have helped, letting the brain relax and having that year off,” he said of the mixed blessings brought about by his back injury.
“Obviously it wasn’t stress free because I wanted to train. But having that year of less training and less intense training – having trained intensely for a long time – maybe that break was something I needed.”
Swimmers can start qualifying for their events 18 months out from Rio, meaning Stjepanovic will be aiming to post the standard times as soon as possible from January 2015.
With that goal in mind he has been honing his race skills with an intensive load of travel and competitions. He raced eight weeks out of 10 recently, at meets in Antwerp, Luxembourg, Berlin, Oman and Dubai.
“Even in soft competitions he was swimming at a world level of someone who had been in heavy training,” Chris Tidey, his coach, said. “He has gained a lot of confidence about racing under difficult circumstances.”
It is a marker of his standing in the sport that Gems consulted with Stjepanovic, as well as his Hamilton Academy coaches, before they began building a new school pool.
The starting blocks at the Al Khail school, for instance, are the second best available. When the new pool is built on the campus next door, it will have the best blocks – at their recommendation.
Having all the high-spec facilities money can buy does not guarantee success, though.
Tidey, who has overseen Stjepanovic’s remarkable rise in the sport from school pools in Dubai to the world stage, is constantly seeking ways to take his ward out of his comfort zone.
Hence the hefty workload of travelling and competing. Even when he was racing in home waters it was never easy.
Last month, he jumped out of his training pool to compete in races before going straight back to training after the races. The workload for the week was 75,000m, a five-kilometre open water swim, plus whatever the race events added up to.
Overcoming struggles is often part of the making of champions, but Tidey does not believe the prevailing comfort of Dubai living is an impediment to his Olympian’s progress. “Velimir doesn’t care about going to parties,” Tidey says. “He is internally very driven. He is happy staying in because he has got to go to the Olympics and the others haven’t.
“He has not had to have the desperation of learning to fight for things. If he had nothing in life, would it make him better? I don’t think it would.
“That is just his character.
“He has got a laptop, a TV, an iPhone, the same as everyone else. It doesn’t matter what people have got, it is how they react to the environment around them.”
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