From his childhood in Dubai as the son of immigrants to his still-fledgling swimming career that has seen him partake in two Olympic Games, the 23-year-old Serbian swimmer talks to Gruffudd Owen about life in the emirate, the pool and the future
You were born in Abu Dhabi to Bosnian Serb immigrants but spent your childhood in Dubai. What was it like to grow up in the emirate?
My parents moved to Dubai during the 1990s. At that time there was a civil war in Bosnia, so a lot of people were forced to leave the country. My parents came to Dubai and decided to stay there. That’s where I was brought up.
Living in Dubai as the son of immigrants has had an extremely positive influence on me. You go to school in a very diverse and multicultural area where you meet a lot of different people from a lot of different ethnicities and backgrounds. It’s always interesting to hear stories about how people came to Dubai.
It’s also a very tolerant place, and it’s very important to grow up in such a way because it helps when you travel: you’re a little bit more understanding and appreciative of everyone around you, of what they do and of how they do it.”
The facilities in Dubai are definitely there to be able to produce top-level athletes in all sports: it’s just a case of getting the foundation level up and running. The bigger the base, the more there will be at the top of the pyramid
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in swimming?
When I was younger, I used to practise a lot of sports. I was generally an all-rounder, but I always shone in swimming. At 12 years of age, Chris Tidey [Stjepanovic’s then-coach] sat me down with my mum and told me that I had the potential to be a very good swimmer and qualify for the London 2012 Olympic Games if I trained properly.
Before this I was only training to keep up my fitness, but after that conversation with my coach I decided to put my head down and start training competitively. The results showed, and every year I’ve progressed and become better and better.”
How has being based in Dubai helped you progress in your career?
At the time when I was starting to focus on swimming, Dubai didn’t have the facilities it has now. There were only two 50m pools in the city – one of them was in the Dubai Police Academy, which you weren’t allowed to use unless you got special permission.
It’s definitely moved forward a lot since then. In my opinion, Dubai has arguably the best swimming pool in the world at the Hamdan Sports Complex.
The facilities are definitely there to be able to produce top-level athletes in all sports: it’s just a case of finding them through talent identification and then getting the foundation level of that sport up and running. The bigger the base, the more there will be at the top of the pyramid.”
You were crowned both the 200m and 400m freestyle champion at the 2014 European Aquatics Championships in Berlin – your finest career achievement to date – but struggled at the Rio Olympic Games last year. How are you aiming to bounce back at the 17th FINA World Championships in Budapest this month?
I didn’t have a great showing at last year’s Olympics. I took three months off after Rio, changed coaches [he parted ways with Chris Tidey earlier this year and is now coached by Serbian swimming instructor Sebastijan Higl] and then got married in January. It’s been a turbulent year in that sense, but I’m feeling good: I’ve been training well, and a lot of people around me have said that I look better than I did last year and the year before that.
My main goal is to compete without any real stress or expectation from anyone else, to swim my own races and to do my own thing. I’m just looking to get the best possible time I can get.”
Chris Tidey has had a huge influence on me; he effectively initiated everything. If I wasn’t based in Dubai and if he hadn’t moved there, I don’t think I'd be swimming
You had a 12-year professional relationship with Chris Tidey prior to your decision to opt for a new coach. How much of an influence did the Englishman have on your career?
Chris has definitely had a huge influence because he effectively initiated everything. The swimmer-coach relationship we had was extremely effective, and that’s the reason why I was able to get to the level where I am now. If I wasn’t based in Dubai and if Chris hadn’t moved there, I don’t think I'd be swimming.
But I couldn’t have done it without my loved ones either. My mum woke up at 4.30 in the morning every day to take me to training, my dad financed a lot of my swimming education and in recent years my wife has always been there to support me.
There are so many people who are there for you behind the scenes, and people don’t realise how many things go on apart from you being able to swim.”
At 23, you have plenty of years ahead of you in competitive swimming. Having enrolled on a business management course in Dubai, however, do you have an idea of what you plan to do after your days in the pool are over?
I like the thought of business management and being able to potentially manage my own company, but right now I’m still figuring things out.
My wife [yoga entrepreneur Jessica Olie] makes a living through Instagram; she has 380,000 followers and I take the majority of her photographs, so I want to do a photography degree alongside a swimming teaching course.
A desk job doesn’t really appeal to me: I would like to be a more active person. But you never know what the future holds: if I think of something that doesn’t exist in Dubai, I’ll be sure to come up with something.”
The 2017 FINA World Championships take place in Budapest between 14-30 July