x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Abu Dhabi hospitality makes challenge worth the wait for triathlete

While a bravo goes out to the legions who energised the Corniche, here is a shout for the elite triathlete who finished 17th.

David Plese had a long wait at the airport.
David Plese had a long wait at the airport.

A triathlon seems hard; a triathlon with sand blowing into your face at one juncture seems harder; and a triathlon with sand blowing into your face at one juncture five days after spending 16 nervous hours in the Abu Dhabi International Airport seems harder still.

So while a bravo goes out to the legions who energised the Corniche and finished the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon yesterday, here is a shout for the elite triathlete who finished 17th.

And while sand blowing into your face might spark a fresh marketing idea - why not jazz up the odd triathlon with the odd man-made sandstorm here and there, just to steepen the test? - count David Plese among those who barely noticed.

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"I think it's the same for everyone so you can't complain," he said and, besides, cycling in the wind beats sitting around wondering if you squandered the last three months of your life.

Seventeenth can exhilarate if you happened to land in Abu Dhabi around, say, 1am the previous Monday and if only at the immigration counter did you learn that, say, Slovenian citizens require an entry visa.

It is always lousy enough landing in wee hours and apparently worse when told you'll probably have to turn around and go right back.

As a 27-year-old triathlete from an athletically adept country of two million that tends to rank highly on Olympic medals-per-capita lists, Plese spent the next 16 hours lost on Earth.

Alone, because neither his coach nor a Slovenian official could be with him, he dialled the Slovenian embassy in Cairo. He dialled his coach, who dialled some Slovenian authorities. He dialled event organisers.

Everyone stated powerlessness.

At this point you might picture some nondescript waiting room that might multiply the misery, but fortunately for Plese, some Abu Dhabi hospitality intervened.

"Oh, they took care of me," he said. "They put me in the business lobby. I was sleeping, twice. I had breakfast like I usually have for a week!"

At this point you might picture some sort of terminal bliss in some therapeutic room between origin and destination, but unfortunately for Plese, breakfast came with agony.

Many souls with visa issues have lingered in dingier airports with sadder stories, but not many have just completed the peculiar self-torture of triathlon training.

Plese had filled winter in Slovenia and Miami priming for Abu Dhabi. He had almost turned around in Munich en route to Abu Dhabi when an airline briefly wanted to charge €1,156 (Dh5,900) for his bicycle's excessive heft.

"I did so much training and everything for this one because it's such a long one," he said. "All my time will be wasted." Snoozing while sitting up as dawn came on Monday, he woke to an airport agent touting an 8am flight he could board at 7am. He winced and managed to get approval to wait longer. He had breakfast.

"And then I stayed for lunch," he said.

Pause.

"And then I stayed for dinner."

It seems Mr Plese also risked getting fat. He had snacks, nuts, fruit, fish, rice. For the first 12 hours, he did not realise he could walk in the terminal so remained in the one room, not the triathlete's typical Monday.

"And I took a shower," he said. "I didn't know what to do. They have a shower. They also have a toothbrush, and a brush."

He began to learn the lounge-staff timetable; it would change "every four hours".

Finally, in the late afternoon, an agent: "At 7pm, if you don't have your visa by then, you are leaving."

To describe this worst phase, Plese made his hands quiver.

So by yesterday afternoon, having finished in 7hrs 16mins 41secs after a poor opening swim and having tumbled into the wheelchair just beyond the triathlon finish line, and just sitting there with a bag of ice, here was one 17th-place finisher who spoke of a stranger as if that man were some sort of angel.

A call came. "A Mr Abdul Aziz, from nowhere," he said. "He's like a sheikh or something. I don't even know who he is. But he handled it just like nothing."

The visa, basically just a stamp, would come within two hours.

So while the whole sweaty brigade departs Abu Dhabi today, and while all those bicycles depart by air, and while we all should take a moment to think about the baggage handlers, away goes one elite triathlete especially satisfied to have competed, uncommonly grateful toward a powerful stranger and surely unlikely to arrive anywhere else lacking full knowledge of visa regulations.

cculpepper@thenational.ae