x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

UAE swimmer qualifies for Olympics

Abu Dhabi-born Velimir Stjepanovic wins 200 metres butterfly in London. Audio interview

Velimir Stjepanovic on his way to victory during the 200 metres butterfly in London today.
Velimir Stjepanovic on his way to victory during the 200 metres butterfly in London today.

Velimir Stjepanovic, the Serbian swimmer who is a product of Dubai, booked his place at this summer’s Olympic Games after recording the fastest time in the world this year for the 200 metres butterfly in London.

The former Jumeirah College schoolboy, who was born in Abu Dhabi, finished fastest out of a strong 66 man field in the morning heats of the British Gas Swimming Championships.

The 18-year-old student’s time of one minute, 56.18 seconds was more than half a second inside the standard required for automatic qualification for the Olympics.

“[The scoreboard] is on the opposite side to you, so as soon as I had finished I took my goggles off, and squinted – because I really need my glasses to see well but I didn’t have them on me,” he said.

“I looked at the board, managed to see my time but it did take me a while to realise. It was a very nice feeling, as I wasn’t really expecting to go that fast in the morning.”

Stjepanovic may compete for Serbia, but his success in reaching the games is unquestionably a triumph for expatriate Dubai.

His parents have lived in the city for 25 years, after moving from the then Yugoslavia when his father, Milan, landed an engineering job in Dubai. Work commitments have meant his father and mother, Ana, have been unable to travel to the UK for this week’s competition.

However, they were able to share in their son’s delight from a distance. “I spoke to my dad who was at work, but haven’t managed to speak to my mum,” said Stjepanovic, in a telephone interview from London.

“He said it was an immense time and that he was really happy for me. “And my mum’s Facebook status was written in Serbian, but it read: ‘Well done Velimir – mum sends her kisses and is crying and laughing at the same time’. She is also really happy.”

Both Stjepanovic and his coach, Chris Tidey, believe he can shave more time off his new personal best by the time it comes to the Games.

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The swimmer himself said he was “dying like a rat” over the final 50m, while Tidey urged caution, citing the fact there have been few national meetings so far as a reason his time is the fastest so far in 2012.

However, the facts suggest it was a remarkable swim. He was over 1.5 seconds ahead of the next fastest, Belgium’s Egon Van Der Straeten.

His time was also over two seconds faster than that of Wu Peng, the Chinese swimmer who marked himself out as a gold medal contender by beating Michael Phelps twice over this distance last year.

“I think there are some exciting times coming up,” said Tidey, who has overseen Stjepanovic’s rise from 12-year-old novice to Olympian over the past six years.

“It means we can focus on preparations for the Olympics now, rather than having to chase that ‘A’ time [automatic qualifying] again and again and again.”

Tidey, a former Great Britain swimmer, has two more aspiring Olympians under his charge this week, with Tiago Venancio and Stefan Sorak also part of the Hamilton Aquatics academy in Dubai.

The coach is likely to feel a special affinity for Stjepanovic’s achievements, though, given that he has been his coach for six years. “When he first came in, he had a nice feel of the water but he was not standout amazing,” Tidey said.

“There were swimmers who were faster than him at his age, but the development he has made has all been down to diligence on his behalf. He has a real desire to achieve something. It is not down to what I have done, or what his family have done, most of it you can put down to his drive and desire.”

pradley@thenational.ae

Times from 200m butterfly final at the World Championships in Shangai last year

1. Michael Phelps (US)    1:53.34
2. Takeshi Matsuda (JPN)    1:54.01
3. Wu Peng (CHN)    1:54.67
4. Chen Yin (CHN)    1:55.00
5. Chad Le Clos (RSA)    1:55.07
6. Pawel Korzeniowski (POL)    1:55.39
7. Dinko Jukic (AUT)    1:55.48
8. Bence Biczo (HUN)    1:55.53

Stjepanovic’s personal best time yesterday
1. Velimir Stjepanovic (SER)     1:56.18