Serbian roots pull at Stjepanovic
Born and brought up in the United Arab Emirates, Velimir Stjepanovic will swim for his parents' country Serbia at the London Olympics, a situation everyone is happy with.
"I've always seen myself as Serbian," Stjepanovic told Reuters in Dubai during a break from his build-up to the Games. "It just feels right to swim for Serbia rather than the UAE. It's difficult to explain but (the way I think of it is that) I am from the UAE but I come from Serbia.
"Obviously it's a bit difficult as I've lived here my whole life, but when I go back to Serbia it does feel like home, it does feel like I live there and that I come from there rather than the UAE."
Other countries have encountered controversy when they have recruited athletes from beyond their borders in the run-up to an Olympic Games, with British media dubbing US-born track athletes such as Tiffany Porter andShana Cox "Plastic Brits" after they switched countries.
The 18-year-old Stjepanovic said no-one from the UAE had ever approached him to swim for them and his fellow Serbian swimmers were completely relaxed about his presence in the squad.
"They are a great bunch of people and when we went to Hungary (for this year's European Aquatics Championships) we were a total of 11 swimmers, we functioned really well as a group and we are really good with each other," he said.
The Serbian Olympic Committee gave Stjepanovic the honour of carrying the national flag at the opening ceremony for the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore, where he won silver in the 100m freestyle and bronze in the 100m butterfly.
Stjepanovic's parents, Milan and Ana, moved to the UAE 25 years ago because of work but regular trips back to their homeland, with Velimir and his older brother Alex, have ensured the pull of their roots has remained strong for the whole family.
Despite his loyalty to Serbia, Stjepanovic, who will swim the 200m butterfly in London, said he felt a responsibility to be a role model for local swimmers in the country of his birth.
"I think there's a lot of kids here that do look up to me and obviously I do need to set a standard for swimming in the UAE because the UAE's given me so much and I want to give that back. So if I can do anything then I'll try and do my best to do it."
The UAE has won only one Olympic medal, a gold in shooting for Sheikh Ahmad bin Mohammad bin Hasher Al Maktoum in Athens in 2004.
Currently on a gap year to concentrate on Olympic preparations ahead of a three-year business management course in Dubai, Stjepanovic started swimming competitively at the age of 12.
He briefly held the fastest time in the world for 2012, 1:56.18, achieved in March at the British Olympics trial meeting in the pool that will be used for the Games.
That time, which secured his spot in London, now places him 15th in the world this year and with swimmers such as American Michael Phelps, Japan's Takeshi Matsuda, Australia's Nick D'Arcy and 2011 World Cup winnerChad Le Clos of South Africa among those also on the starting blocks, Stjepanovic faces a tough fight to reach the final.
"I wouldn't say that (2012) is too early for me but it will be difficult. 2012 is there as my goal (now) but (the) 2016 (Olympics in Rio de Janeiro) is my primary target," he said.
"I go (to London) for experience but it's not like I'm going there and mess around. I'm going there to race and I want to win."
Stjepanovic is unfazed at the prospect of coming up against 14-time Olympic gold medallist Phelps.
"He's quite an intimidating person and also he's a lot taller than me, about a head taller," he said. "That in itself is pretty scary but I think it will be very good to race against him because he is the best of the best."