x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Al Wasl swimming club looking to make a big splash

Zayed Abbas, the head of singles sports at the Al Wasl swimming club, says they hope to play a bigger part in the community.

Abdulah Ibrahim, aged seven, is one of many schoolchildren benefitting from the use of the swimming pool at Al Wasl.
Abdulah Ibrahim, aged seven, is one of many schoolchildren benefitting from the use of the swimming pool at Al Wasl.

To most expatriates living in the UAE, Al Wasl would mean little more than a football club.

A few of them would probably know about the club's long history and passionate fans.

Fewer still would know about the silverware, in many different sports, in the trophy cabinets and only a tiny minority would have ventured inside Wasl's massive yellow gates.

The club, however, want to change that.

"The vision of our new management, which took over two years ago, is to become a bigger part of the community," Zayed Abbas, the head of singles sports at the club, said. "They encourage us to think outside the box and show more enterprise.

"It's not just about winning cups and trophies now - the focus is to give something back to society."

As part of that vision, Wasl have thrown open the doors of their 10-lane, 25-metre swimming pool, which was built more than a year ago to facilitate the training needs of the athletes who took part in the Fina World Swimming Championships (25m), which took place in Dubai in December.

The club have got the United Kingdom's Swimming Teachers Association (STA) on board and these experts will be offering a Learn to Swim Programme to all ages and abilities during the daytime.

"When this facility became operational, people heard about it and we started getting a lot of inquiries," Abbas said. "At the same time, we were also making inquiries to engage a professional partner to run an academy."

He said that club officials went to the UK to see how the STA operated. "We saw how they run their programme and this was exactly what we wanted to do," Abbas said. "Of course, we learned more than we had in mind.

"The STA have never been in this region. Al Wasl is the first location for them. I went there personally and I saw how many students are learning swimming. It is unbelievable. In one day they have more than 300 students at every centre. In a week they have around 2,000 to 3,000 students.

"This is something that we would like to reach by engaging partners with such experience. Most of their trainees are school students."

Abbas, a former national team tennis player, was particularly pleased to see that swimming was mandatory for primary schoolchildren and hopes to see such rules being applied here as well.

"What happens in the UK is that it is mandatory to swim half an hour every week for every [primary] school student," he said. "So what do they do? They go and engage with such schools and have special arrangements with them. Their prices are very reasonable, so whoever wants it will not say no to it. It is not very expensive.

"So this is how it starts and today you can see, these countries who have such programmes, have made sports mandatory, they have achieved results regionally and internationally. That is where we want to reach as well.

"So the STA will provide their experience to the locals, the residents and all the clubs or the national teams who would like to come to Dubai for a summer or winter camp, or to prepare for a tournament.

"We have the facilities and we have the experience today. This is where we want to reach. We want to engage more with the private sector because they have more freedom and flexibility in working, and, of course, they have more experience. So we would like to take their experience and apply it here to develop our youth and clubs."

The swimming complex boasts a fitness centre with a sauna and jacuzzi. There is a room for aerobic classes and therapy. A canteen is also taking shape and spectator areas will appear in the near future.

The STA's Iain Bulloch, who arrived in the UAE just two weeks ago, is busy designing programmes that will maximise the use of the facility. Schoolchildren are the main focus, but there are plans for people of all ages and needs, with a "Breakfast Club" for office workers from 6am to 8am.

"People can come around, have a swim and then go on for work," Bulloch, who has been a swimming teacher for 19 years, said. "The location here is ideal for it." Given the cultural requirements, the club will also be having women-only sessions when no men will be allowed inside the building.

"Lots of women would like to swim, but they don't have a proper place to swim," Abbas said. "Here we can control the environment. Some of them, they don't like to mix so we have special hours for women."

"Twice a week we are going to run a ladies-only session," Bulloch added. "So we will take half the lane ropes out. Half the pool can be used for aqua aerobic. For the ladies that don't want to do that, they can swim on their own."

He added: "We will also have sessions for schoolchildren. They will obviously be bussed in for their school swimming lessons. We have sent e-mails out to schools without swimming pools to tell them about this wonderful facility and the STA programme."

He said that in an attempt to make maximum use of the pool they could provide adult swimming lessons in the evening as well as water polo sessions during the week.

And at weekends there are plans to stage pool parties, which have proved popular in the UK.

The social use of the pool aside, the main thrust of the STA will be on discovering a future generation of swimmers. They will be forming their own team and taking part in competitions.

"Once we take in the small children, the five-year-olds, as they improve and go up from beginner to novice and become more experienced, we will give them the option to become more like a competitive swimmer."

Wasl have already drawn up plans to have regular swimming competitions at the pool and they are waiting for permission from the swimming association to stage their first event.

Abbas also revealed there are bigger plans in the offing at Wasl, with all-inclusive academies being one of them.

"Academics is very important," he said. "Most of the people who go into certain sports, they enter academies, where they get not only technical training, but also academic.

"This is what is lacking in this part of the world, but at Al Wasl we have plans to provide academic as well as technical training, along with boarding The facilities are all there."

Ian Thorpe comes out of retirment for Olympics and will train in Abu Dhabi

arizvi@thenational.ae