Training alone at Hamdan Sports Complex, it’s easy to spot UAE-born Serbian star Velimir Stjepanovic swim length after length.
“Just five more to go,” the 23-year-old tells me as I wait poolside to talk to him.
You wouldn’t guess by watching his rhythmic action in full flight, but for Stjepanovic, actually getting back into the pool and doing what he does best hasn’t been as easy as it looks in recent times.
Last August, the Dubai resident headed to the Rio Olympics with great expectation of winning a medal, but by his own admission, it was a big, big disappointment to come home from Brazil empty-handed.
Indeed, so much so, upon his return, he stepped away from the pool for more than three months and didn’t submerge into the water once.
For a man who had barely taken a two-week break from swimming since his childhood, this was new territory. Uncharted waters, if you like.
“There’s no tiptoeing around it, Rio didn’t go as well as I’d hoped and it did take a pretty big toll on me,” Stjepanovic, who failed to make it through to the finals of his signature 200m freestyle race, said.
“It was a huge step for me to take three months or so off and it was really, really vital.”
After also missing out on a place in the 400m freestyle final, the swimmer hasn’t been afraid to analyse what went wrong and why he didn’t reach the heights he expected of himself.
“For the Olympics, I put a lot of pressure on myself. It was a high-pressure situation everywhere where I went, but I didn’t help myself by piling more of it on.
“Usually, I don’t really feel it on the outside, when I am away from the pool, but a lot was expected of me in Serbia and in Dubai too.
“To be honest, that didn’t really affect me too much but it was the pressure that I put on myself to try and compete well… it probably tipped me over the edge.
“I wasn’t really enjoying swimming as much building up to Rio.”
Before the Games, Stjepanovic joined fellow Serbian athletes in a training camp.
“I don’t think that really went well,” the two-time Olympian stated. “It’s never really suited me to do training camps so I kind of regret doing it as well. It’s such an intense environment and you go outside of your comfort zone. We were away or a month and that creates even more pressure and anxiety for both swimmers and coaches.
“The tapering didn’t go as well as it could have done either – a bunch of small things that could have been done better.
“Fortunately, I didn’t go through the lows of Brazil alone, I had loads of people around me that wanted to support and help what I was doing. Hindsight is a great thing, 20-20, but you can’t really go back and change it. Now, it’s about looking forward and not dwelling on the past too much.”
True to his word, Stjepanovic has done just that – and he may agree – that other events in his life put competition swimming into perspective.
Earlier this year, in January, he married the ‘love of his life’ Jessica Olie and the couple live in Dubai.
His new wife was a national level swimmer in the UK as a youngster and is now a qualified yoga teacher – creating a series of e-books on the practice and amassing an Instagram following of over 360,000 followers.
2017 started off in the best way possible. I got married to the love of my life and best friend @jessicaolie on the 14th January. This is my absolute favourite picture of the day, but it still doesn't do the day justice as we celebrated with close family and friends, it was better than I could have ever pictured it. Thank you for standing by my side and being awesome and saying "I do". I love you, Jessica Olie.
He added: “I’ve always wanted a family and kind of always been a bit more mature than my age might show. I mean I’m 23 and I’m married, but way back when, people got married younger. My parents got married when they were 20 – so it’s not all that different.
“Jess is the love of my life for sure. I’m just happy to be experiencing all the stuff that I’m doing with her. This journey that I’m on and the journey she’s on, we are doing it and experiencing that together. That’s the most important thing.”
This year, Stjepanovic also parted company with long-term coach Chris Tidey, of 12 years, and hired Sebastijan Higl – a Serbian swimming guru.
He freely admits it was a difficult decision to take but nevertheless one that just felt right to make.
“I want to put on record my thanks to Chris. It was one crazy ride, a lot of ups and downs but at the end of the day, I became double European champion (Berlin 2014) under his watch. I’m really thankful for Hamilton Aquatics in Dubai for giving me the opportunity to train in the swimming academy there for so many years.
“I think me and Sebastijan are really on the same page with what we want to achieve and his mindset is very similar to mine,” the former Jumeirah College pupil, who will be joined by his fellow countryman and coach in Dubai for a training block next week, said.
“We’re both quite laidback in a sense. He’s sort of just my coach and nothing else. He doesn’t really mind what I do outside of the pool – which is important – because I don’t want to feel pressured in anything outside of swimming.”
Recently, Stjepanovic has also been working with a sports psychologist and he says: “When I tell people about it, they assume something is wrong and really it’s not, I just want the opportunity to be the best swimmer I can be.”
For now, he is working hard in the pool again and will head to Serbia next month for another intensive block of physical conditioning.
The next big focus is the 17th FINA World Championships, which will be held in Budapest and Balatonfüred from July 14.
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