LONDON // Mubarak Salem, the UAE's lone competitor in the swimming competition at London 2012, was granted the chance to celebrate becoming an Olympian yesterday by watching Michael Phelps at the Aquatics Centre last night.
It had initially appeared that the 24-year-old breaststroke specialist was going to suffer a pitiably brief stay in Stratford. The National Olympic Committee had originally booked their lone swimmer, as well as the UAE swimming team coach, Jay Benner, on a flight back to Dubai last night, just hours after his 100 metres breaststroke heat.
However, their departures were then delayed upon request, meaning Salem was able to watch Phelps continue to try to press his case for being regarded as the greatest ever Olympian last night.
Now he plans to head back to the Aquatics Centre today to watch a fellow Dubai resident in action.
"I will definitely go to watch Velimir [Stjepanovic, the Dubai-raised swimmer who competes in the 4x100 metres relay for Serbia today]," Salem said.
"I have seen Phelps walking around in the village. It has been amazing. This is a very nice competition. I am very proud I have been here."
The Al Wasl swimmer finished second in the opening heat of the 100m breaststroke in a time of 1 minute 05.26 seconds at the Aquatics Centre, which was not fast enough for him to advance to the next stage of the competition.
That left him 1.61 seconds behind Amini Fonua, from Tonga, but ahead of Diguan Pigot, from Suriname, and Wael Koubrosli, a Lebanese swimmer.
In a bid to ensure he performed to his optimum, Salem had opted out of the spectacular opening ceremony, which only finished around 10 hours before he was due in the pool.
He was not totally able to conserve his energy, though. Nerves, as well as the proximity of his room in the Athlete's Village to the stadium made for a fitful night's sleep.
"I missed the opening ceremony because I had my race the very next morning," the Emirati swimmer said.
"I did not get to sleep early though as I was nervous, but there was also fire and music from the opening ceremony. I watched most of it on the TV." Salem's time was around half a second slower than his personal best over the distance, despite a powerful display over the opening 50m.
However, the American coach of UAE swimming insisted Salem can look back on his first outing as an Olympian with pride.
"Mubarak raced well, but he struggled a little with the last 25 metres," said Benner, who believes Salem could be well equipped to qualify - rather than rely on an invitation - for the Rio Olympics in four years time, if he continues his current rate of progress.
"He was a half second slower then his best, [but] he got up and raced well. He was out good at the 50-metre mark, in 30.2 seconds. He was definitely ready to race and put forth a great effort."