Ramola Talwar Badam
DUBAI // Olympic athletes powered past college students as young children raced their parents at the Wild Wadi's Swim Burj Al Arab yesterday.
More than 700 swimmers participated in the non-competitive charity swimming event around the hotel, organised in support of the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), making it the largest in its 12-year history.
Over the past years, the event has helped MSF raise more than Dh1.5 million.
Braving strong winds, some participants swiftly sliced through the waves, while others kept a more relaxed pace over the 800-metre distance.
"It was cold and windy, but it's for a good cause, plus it's a nice wake-up call and was a great swim," said Chloe Butler, a Sharjah resident, who also ran the 10-kilometre race at the Dubai Marathon last week.
"It's great to swim around an iconic structure like the Burj rather than in a pool."
The event was open to competitive and non-competitive athletes. Swimmers paid Dh275 to participate in eight categories divided by age groups.
For swimmers from the UAE national squad, the event gave them time to bond.
"It was not so much a challenge for me, because I've swum in longer open water competitions. But it was fun, and I got to swim with my brothers," said Obaid Al Jasmi, 31, who won the men's event.
He has represented the UAE in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but was unable to compete last year due to heart surgery.
Mr Al Jasmi's younger brothers Saeed, 30, and Bakheet, 27, also part of the national team, placed a joint third in the MSF event.
The meet attracted young swimmers as well, such as Chloe Spinks, 12, who is a student at the American School, Dubai.
"It was really cold in the beginning; then it was fine," said Chloe, among the winners.
"I really like swimming, and I really liked reaching the finish first.
"I like swimming in the sea, because I like the challenge of the current, and I love being out in the open."
Ghada Hatim, the executive director of MSF's UAE office, said the wide range of participants was encouraging.
"It was amazing seeing all the energy," she said.
"People's participation here makes our job possible. This involvement from different nations and age groups is what keeps up spirits."
It turned into a family day out, as mothers with babies in strollers joined friends and relatives, who cheered when the swimmers completed the loop around the Burj.
Alka Kalra, an Abu Dhabi resident, was overjoyed that her daughter with special needs could watch her elder sister participate.
Suffering from Friedreich's ataxia, a rare genetic disorder affecting the muscles and heart, Mrs Kalra's younger daughter Shobhika, 21, is confined to a wheelchair and was hesitant to go to the beach.
"But everyone has been so helpful and supportive, without us asking for help," Mrs Kalra said.
"It's great to be here with other families and to connect with each other."