Velimir Stjepanovic remembers the first Olympics swimming race he ever watched. He was 15-years-old, sitting in front of his TV screen in Serbia at 4:00 in the morning witnessing Michael Phelps break Milorad Cavic’s heart in the 100m butterfly.
Phelps beat Cavic by a finger tip that day in what is one of the most remarkable races in Olympic history and Stjepanovic was lucky enough to see it happen, even though it spelt defeat for his Serbian compatriot.
“People still talk about that race until this day and I was glad to actually be able to watch it live and that was one of the first races I watched, so that always stuck with me,” Stjepanovic told Sport360.
It is eight years later and Stjepanovic has a chance to create a historic moment of his own at the Olympic Games.
The Abu Dhabi-born Serb, who trains with Hamilton Aquatics in Dubai, is getting ready for his second appearance at the Olympics, where he is his home nation’s top medal prospect in the pool.
Stjepanovic dazzled on his Games debut four years ago in London when he made the 200m butterfly final and placed sixth in a race that saw Chad Le Clos edge Phelps to take gold.
Back problems forced Stjepanovic to steer away from the butterfly since, and he has emerged as a 200m freestyle contender. He took 200 and 400 free gold at the European Championships in Berlin in 2014, and in last May’s Europeans in London, he won silver in the 200.
Before jetting off to Uberlandia in Brazil, where he spent his final weeks of training, Stjepanovic described how he felt mentally ahead of the Rio Olympics.
“It’s a little bit more stressful each day and it’s much harder but I’ve put the training in this year and I think it’ll go well,” said Stjepanovic, who turns 23 on August 7 – the day of the 200m freestyle heats and semi-finals in Rio.
“When you look back at Europeans obviously, it’s not as good as I wanted it to be, but that’s the point of a trial run to see where I can improve.
“I definitely put a lot more pressure on myself. I don’t really feel that around me – I mean I know that people are expecting much more of me at this Olympics but I don’t feel it. It’s more the pressure I put on myself and it’s about maintaining a cool head when I get there.
“I’ve learnt a lot from back then and back then I was a 19, 18-year-old kid going for a 200 fly and no one really expected anything and I made a final. But this time I really want to make the final and possibly do even better.”
Stjepanovic is entered in three events, the 100, 200 and 400 free. He says he’s using the 400 as a warm-up, he’s focusing on the 200 as his main event and that he’s swimming the 100 “just for fun, because it’s at the end of the competition after my main event – it’ll be on the fifth day. So that’ll be just about trying to get a best time and maybe even breaking Cavic’s (Serbian national) record for the 100 free.”
Stepping away from butterfly must not have been an easy decision for Stjepanovic, after doing so well in it in London 2012, but the Serb had no choice.
“I had a really bad injury in my back and I had to actually take about a year and a half off from fly entirely (after London) and that’s when I did a lot of freestyle and I worked on my technique. Every session I did, I did freestyle,” he explains.
“And then in 2013 in Mersin, at the Mediterranean Games, I got three golds and I did massive PBs on the 400 and 200 free and that’s when I realised that I have the capability to swim fast on those two events.
“It’s very hard to get back into butterfly, especially 200, after a year and a half of not swimming it. I decided to keep it aside. I still train butterfly here and there but racing… we’ll see, I might get back into it.”
With Phelps gunning for more Olympics history in Rio, looking to add to his record medal tally of 22 – including 18 gold – Stjepanovic is in awe of what the American is attempting to do in Brazil, where he’ll be making his fifth appearance at the Games.
“It’s pretty insane,” is how Stjepanovic puts it. “Obviously he’s the ambassador of this sport, he’s turned swimming into what it is now. I’m kind of thankful that I’m not swimming 200 fly because now I don’t have to race him.
“That 200 fly is absolutely stacked and I’m really looking forward to watching that race because it’s going to have Chad (Le Clos), László (Cseh) and Phelps in it, it’s going to be a phenomenal race.
“I think he’s going to do really well. He said himself that he wasn’t even in his best shape in Beijing so if he’s going to be in his best shape now, and I think he will be, he doesn’t say something without backing it up, so I think he’s going to be really fast.”
Looking back at his first Olympics appearance, Stjepanovic recalls the special moments that stood out during his time in London.
“It was just an all round amazing experience. I got to go to the opening ceremony and meet Novak Djokovic and talk to him a little bit, which is amazing,” he said. “But I think the thing that stuck to me the most, apart from making the final and coming sixth which was a very big deal, I remember just sitting in the room at the Village and I was watching the cycling.
“Obviously the velodrome is relatively far away from where we were and I think it was a GB athlete, and she or he, I can’t remember exactly, broke the world record and I heard on the screen the cheer from the stadium and at the same time, because the window was open I could hear it from the actual stadium, which was unbelievable, it gave me like huge chills. It was just generally that. I think the biggest thing is the public and the spectators because they really lift you up.”
He’ll be hoping he can experience that kind of support when he dives into the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Barra Olympic Park in a week’s time.
Even though he has spent his entire life living in the UAE, Stjepanovic gets lots of attention in Serbia.
“They definitely expect a lot from me, I am one of the top athletes, I’m definitely the best swimmer in Serbia currently,” he says of the attention he gets when he’s back home. “People do recognise me on the streets here and there. Especially if I’m close to a pool, people will pay closer attention, but if I compare now to four years ago, yes loads of people do recognise me now compared to then. And hopefully after this Olympics even more people will.”
And is there any athlete he’s keen to meet when he’s in Rio?
“Usain Bolt,” he says without hesitation. “I haven’t met him and he’s always been one of my idols. I mean who doesn’t like him? It’ll be nice. I would love to possibly, potentially watch his 100 final. So that’ll be one person I’d love to meet.”
The Italian tops the World Drivers’ Championship on 35 points, 11 ahead of American Shaun Torrente, following his sensational victory at the Grand Prix of France two weekends ago.
Team Abu Dhabi also lead the Teams World Championship by eight points ahead of the CTIC F1 China Team.
The Grand Prix of Portugal takes place on the Arade River in Portimao on Sunday and Carella is determined to push home his advantage.
“This year it was our weekend in France but Shaun (Torrente) will be determined to get his revenge in Portugal and we have already been in contact through social media and both of us are looking forward to what promises to be another great battle,” said Carella.
After F-4S racing was omitted from the racing programme in Evian, meanwhile, Rashed Al Qamzi and Mohammed Al Mehairbi return to UIM F-4S Trophy racing action in Portugal on Saturday.
Al Qamzi is currently tied for the series lead with Ferdinand Zandbergen, after both the Emirati and the Dutchman took a third place and an outright win apiece at the two races in Dubai in March.
They are two points clear of Finland’s Kalle Viippo, while Al Mehairbi suffered his own fair share of disappointment in Dubai and is ninth with five points.
The Italian managed to fend off a fierce challenge from Victory Team’s Shaun Torrente on Evian’s Lac Leman Sunday afternoon.
Carella led from the start until lap 10, when the American hit the front. The Victory Team driver clouted a turn buoy soon after and was forced to run a drive through penalty lap after the turn buoys had been secured.
Carella regained the lead while Torrente regrouped to reach the chequered flag in third after passing Erik Stark with 11 laps to run.
Carella’s victory by the margin of 11.72 seconds gives him an 11-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship after two rounds and Team Abu Dhabi leads the CTIC China Team by eight points in the Teams’ Championship.
Carella had qualified in pole position for the race after a thrilling Q2 session. “We changed position a couple of times in the Q2 and, at the end, I see a chance on the last lap to take it and we fought and we got the pole position,” he said. “It was great for the time after the hard job they have done for the last few months.