x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Al Jasmi jumping in at the deep end

The Emirati swimmer continues to push himself after two decades in a bid to raise the level of the sport in his country.

Saeed al Jasmi, who has been a representative of the UAE national team since 1990, was a GCC champion for nine successive years between 1992 and 2001.
Saeed al Jasmi, who has been a representative of the UAE national team since 1990, was a GCC champion for nine successive years between 1992 and 2001.

For Saeed al Jasmi it was a case of sink or swim when his father, Ahmed, a former pearl diver, tossed him into the sea as a baby about 25 years ago. 

Like his two elder and three younger brothers who were also introduced to the balmy Gulf waters shortly after learning how to walk, he was in no mood for sinking. He swam ... with a vengeance. Al Jasmi, 27, has turned out to be the best of the fraternal swimming sextet and has been a standard bearer for his country for two decades since winning his first age-group national title as a six-year-old.

Sibling rivalry certainly helped as he strove to keep up with Mohammed, two years his elder, and Obaid, who had a year's start on him, while working hard to stay ahead of Bakhit, Sultan and Faisal in the sporting Emirati family. Al Jasmi is currently working as hard as ever in the pool at Abu Dhabi's Al Jazira club to be at his peak for two new challenges. A sprinter by nature, he will venture into the comparative unknown on Saturday by taking part in the inaugural one-mile open-water race at the Abu Dhabi Swimming Festival.

Then he will concentrate on what he does best - sharpening up his pace from a flying start to enhance his prospects of a respectable placing in the Fina World Championships which take place in Dubai from December 9-14. "Entering the long-distance race has meant a special training schedule for me over the last few weeks," al Jasmi said. "But it doesn't affect my physical condition. It will be good for me to train for this competition because it will undoubtedly increase my stamina.

"I have competed before in open waters in the UAE but I never got a ranking. I found the distance too long, so I quickly went back to sprinting." Al Jasmi, a member of Al Wahda club since 1988 and a representative of the national team since 1990, was a GCC champion for nine successive years between 1992 and 2001. His most eye-catching display was in winning seven medals at the Al Fajal international championships in Iran in 1993 and he was proclaimed as the UAE's top swimmer at his age group for the ensuing five years. He is constantly urging his fellow Emiratis to follow in his footsteps. He believes the first staging of the Swimming Festival off the capital's Corniche beach will encourage more local youngsters to take up the sport.

"We are overshadowed by other sports - football mainly," al Jasmi, forced to give up competitive swimming for four years to pursue a career as a flight engineer, said. He now has a degree in engineering management and recently joined Adnoc as a site engineer - a role that allows him to devote the time he needs to attend training sessions six nights a week. "Swimming here in the UAE is not like football," he said. "Football is a common pastime here but swimming is not. There is nowhere near the professionalism in our sport as there is in football.

"It would be a big motivation for us if we were paid to swim. UAE swimmers have picked up more medals than our footballers so it is reasonable to ask - why are we not paid? "But an event like this one is bound to help. It's going to be a lot of fun and people who take part for the first time might come back and look for more of that fun." More serious, though, is his date in Dubai where he is determined to improve on his placing of 123rd out of 209 entries for last year's world championships in Rome. He is entered for the 100m freestyle but his priority is the 50m dash.

"I need to break my own UAE record to have a good chance of securing a good world ranking," he said. "That currently stands at 23.4sec. If I repeated that time in the championships it would rank me at about 55. If I went half a second faster it would take me into the top 30. So that's my target." Al Jasmi caught the competitive swimming bug from his elder brothers. "Saeed likes to compete and relishes a challenge," said Mohammed, who recently retired from the pool. "He used to take on bigger and older swimmers to gain experience and that is why he won so many age group titles."

That philosophy has been carried through the family chain by Bakhit, 24, the fourth of the six brothers. "Saeed has been a huge inspiration for me," he said. "He started so young that his efforts encouraged me to take up the sport as a young boy, too." Bakhit knows it will be a tall order but his goal is to surpass Saeed's achievements. "With the right training and the commitment, it is achievable for me to break my brother's record and win more GCC titles," he said. "I am on course to do that.

"The relationship between us is like a chain with each link holding the other. When one moves on, the others move up." If he eventually earns a superior record to his brother there will be no boasting. "We all respect each other so much," he said. "We follow the eldest brother so closely. He is like a second father to us. "Even if I beat one of my older brothers in a race, I don't gloat about it and the same would apply if Sultan or Faisal beat me."

Bakhit spoke of a tremendous camaraderie between the six brothers which has often spread into other sports. "We like playing football together," he said. "Either against each other in two teams of three or the six of us teaming up to play against outsiders." The brothers are also about to team up for what will be an historic relay appearance in the World Championships. Saeed and Bakhit will be accompanied by Obaid and Faisal in the 4x25m freestyle event and will all compete individually along with Sultan.

Helping with the training for both the Swimming Festival and the Fina championships is Obeid Juma al Rumaithi, who has been the UAE national coach for the last 10 years. He praised the ambassadorial work carried out by Saeed in particular and Obaid, the national team captain. "I have known Saeed since he was five years old," he said of the man who is now coached by the American Jay Benner. "I think he is one of the best swimmers in the history of the UAE. And he has won more medals than anybody.

"I think with the proper support Saeed will be able to compete for another five years. "He has definitely been a very good role model for up-and-coming swimmers in this country. Had he been given more financial backing and better training facilities, he could have been even better."

wjohnson@thenational.ae

The facts

What: The first Abu Dhabi Swimming Festival, an open-water competition for all ages and abilities.
When: Saturday, 7am.
Where: Corniche beach.
Main event: The Waha Capital Abu Dhabi Mile (1.6km). Swimmers must be over 16. Men’s and women’s winners receive Dh5,000.
Team events: Relays and other races will be held for school, corporate and family teams.
Final event: The Etihad Holidays Splash Dash (700m for adults, 200m for children). Men’s and women’s winners receive two airline tickets to Europe.
More information: www.swimabudhabi.com