x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

UAE-based swimmers ready for a test of Olympic waters in London

Three swimmers from Dubai are targeting Olympic qualification at a test event in London this week, highlighting the growth of the sport in the UAE.

Velimir Stjepanovic, just 18 years of age, is one of the most promising swimmers in the world and is a product of Dubai.
Velimir Stjepanovic, just 18 years of age, is one of the most promising swimmers in the world and is a product of Dubai.

They may be competing against each other for individual recognition, but swimmers can still do banter just as well as any team sportsman.

Tiago Venancio, one of three Dubai-based swimmers who are targeting Olympic qualification at a test event in London this week, was in faux diva-mode at their final training session before departure at the weekend.

"Can't we go to a warmer pool to do this - this water's not even cold, it is freezing," the Portuguese swimmer complained to any one of his Hamilton Aquatics stablemates that would listen.

"It'll be all right - just don't get your shoulders under," he was told, plainly. There are a few reasons why that method for combating the cold might not work for an elite swimmer.

Admittedly, it is not yet summer in Dubai. But the prevailing conditions are hardly akin to March in London, either.

Temperatures have been unseasonably high in England's capital over the past week, but the warm-snap is not going to last.

Lows of 3°C are forecast for tomorrow. A touch colder than Raffles South Campus in Dubai, then, even when the Burj Al Arab is casting a shadow.

The weather is unlikely to be the only thing that will provide a sharp reality check for the three Olympic hopefuls when they compete at the swimming championships in England's capital.

That dream, the one about competing in the London Olympics, is never going to seem more real than when they mount the starting blocks in competition this week.

These championships are the first time the new National Aquatics Centre have been used for competition, ahead of the Games this summer.

Many of the world's leading swimmers will be there, either laying down markers ahead of the big event, shooting for automatic "A" standard qualifying times, or jostling for a place near the front of the queue of "B" standard times. It is the litmus test they have all been waiting for.

"It hasn't hit me yet, but I am sure that will change as soon as I see the pool and the other competitors," Velimir Stjepanovic, 18, said before flying out of the UAE.

"I'm sure there will be nerves, but sometimes nervousness is a good thing. It is important to feel nerves. If it is not too much, it will help you out in the end."

Nerves, maybe, but he is unlikely to feel completely overawed. He competed in front of 7,000 people at the World Championships in Shanghai last year, and he is starting to enjoy performing on this stage.

Despite the fact he competes for Serbia, Stjepanovic is a fully-qualified local hero. His family moved to the UAE from the former Yugoslavia 25 years ago when his father landed an engineering job in the Emirates.

He was born in Abu Dhabi, on account of the fact his mother felt more comfortable with a Serbian doctor based in the capital during pregnancy, but has lived in Dubai his whole life.

English is his first language, but he is adept enough at the tongue of his parents that he can converse with his national team colleagues, such as Miroslav Cavic, the Serbian who finished just a millisecond behind Micheal Phelps in one final in Beijing four years ago.

"I'm not perfectly fluent, but I can speak normally," says Stjepanovic, who hopes to study business management and finance at Middlesex University once his singularly-storied gap year comes to an end.

Only seven swimmers in the 70-man list for tomorrow's heats of the 200-metre butterfly have a better entry time than the former Jumeirah College schoolboy's personal best of 1 minute, 57.40 seconds.

The Olympic qualifying standard for the event is set at 1:56.85, so he does not need to better his PB by much to be guaranteed entry to the Games.

"He is a product of Dubai," said Chris Tidey, the former Great Britain swimmer who has been Stjepanovic's mentor for the past six years, in his role of managing director Hamilton Aquatics. "He is top 10 in the world. That shows what can be achieved here."

The teenaged Serbian's progress mirrors that of the sport in this country. The UAE has minimal pedigree in swimming, even though Obaid Al Jasmi, the leading Emirati swimmer, has been to the last two Olympics on wild-card invitations.

Not so long ago the facilities for the sport were meagre. However, more pools have been built in recent times, including government-funded ones, such as the Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Sports Complex off the Dubai Bypass Road, constructed for the 2010 World Short Course championships.

The private sector has contributed its share, too, thanks to the increased number of schools which has followed the population growth of the UAE.

Hamilton Aquatics, who have 20 full-time staff looking after more than 1,000 registered swimmers at their academy, have access to 17 25m pools, as well as the 50m pool at Gems World Academy in Dubai.

Not that the facilities on their own create champions.

"At Loughborough in England, before they got a 50-metre pool they were still churning out Olympians," Tidey said. "They only had a 25-yard pool, and that had four lanes.

"In my opinion, it is about the environment that is around them. It doesn't matter if the facilities are not ideal, it is the environment you put around them which has to be ideal."