x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Dubai College to London Olympics, one stroke at a time

Andrew Chetcuti may be a latecomer to the world of competitive swimming but the 18 year old has made up for lost time with plenty of desire and enthusiasm.

The 18-year-old Cheticut hopes to compete in the Olympics next year, representing Malta.
The 18-year-old Cheticut hopes to compete in the Olympics next year, representing Malta.

If you visited the pool at Raffles School in Dubai early most mornings, you would find a UAE-based swimmer with dreams of competing in next year's Olympics.

The young man powering his way through the water at the crack of dawn is 18-year-old Andrew Chetcuti, a Dubai College student, who is less than one second away from securing his place at London 2012.

Chetcuti competes for Malta, his country of birth, although he has lived in the UAE almost all his life. The Olympics allow swimmers from smaller countries to compete if they are the quickest in the nation at a particular distance - Chetcuti is that - and they attain what is called the B qualifying time.

At the moment, Chetcuti's best time for the 50m freestyle is 23.67 seconds and qualifying is 22.88 - so he is 0.79 seconds away from his target. In the 100m freestyle, his best time is 51.98 seconds and qualifying is 50.53 seconds, so he is 1.45 seconds off that.

He has until the start of next year to find the extra speed he needs to qualify for the Games.

"If, and it's still an 'if', I get to the Olympics, then it would be just unbelievable, an experience that I'd never forget," he said.

"I've got to get [the qualifying time] before January or February at the latest, and then I'll know whether I'm going to London. I'm confident that I can do it.

"Just getting there would be an achievement. I can't set any goals about what I could do there. At this stage, just being in London would be a huge step forward.

"What I'm really going to be working towards is Brazil 2016. That's a more realistic time for me to get quick enough to think about reaching semi-finals and things like that."

Those are heady goals for a young man who did not like swimming as a child.

"As a small kid I was actually really afraid of water and when you come from an island that is totally unacceptable," he said.

"So at four years old my parents forced me into swimming lessons and it took off from there, although it wasn't until I was 10 that I started to take it seriously.

"Most of the top swimmers, and I'm talking about the likes of Michael Phelps [the 14-time Olympic gold medal winner], would have started seriously at eight, so I'm a bit of a latecomer."

Chetcuti's late start is not a worry to his coach, Grant Kritzinger, a South African, who worked with some of his country's top swimmers at the Players Swimming Academy before moving to Dubai almost two years ago.

"Swimming and swimmers have changed," he said. "It used to be that they peaked at 22 or 23, now it's 26 or 27, so Andrew has time on his side.

"I have coached more talented swimmers, but I've never seen a harder worker than Andrew. His drive and determination is something else. He's not far from the B qualifying [time] at all and if he continues to improve then I'm almost 100 per cent sure he will qualify."

He said the best chance for a qualifying time should come at the Malta national championships at the end of this month, or the Fina World Championships in Shanghai in July.

"The greatest thing about Andrew is that he has to do this all on his own a lot of the time," Kritzinger said. "There are some good swimmers in the UAE, but he's not in a team and most times it's just me and him at the pool.

"Everyone else in this class of swimming elsewhere in the world has other people to train with. Andrew doesn't have that, so it makes his success and times all the more remarkable."

Kritzinger said Chetcuti stood out from their first meeting.

"The minute I saw this lad, I thought he had something special," the coach said. "He was as raw as they come and there was so much he had to learn in terms of technique, but Andrew was so willing to put the hours in and I've loved working with him.

"In the past two years he has improved by 1.9 seconds in the 50m and by four seconds in the 100m, which is huge, over that time."

Chetcuti has a busy 12 months ahead of him.

In August, he will move to the United States to attend the Georgia Institute of Technology on a swimming scholarship.

"My life is anything but dull," he said. "I'm in the middle of my A-levels and obviously swimming takes up a lot of my time. However, Grant and I sat down to talk about this and he came up with a different training programme that helped me get some free time."

Chetcuti said he once did 10 sessions a week in the pool; now it is six in the pool and four in the gym.

"But on the days that I'm training, I'm up at 4.30am and in the pool at 5.15am before school starts," he said.

"There are no short cuts. This is what we all have to do if we want to become top-class swimmers. It's a sacrifice, but it's what I want to do."

Kritzinger said Chetcuti has handled the load well: "There is a balance that has to be struck between school, swimming and that he is an 18 year old with a life to lead. I get on his back at times, which we all need, but that doesn't happen too often. He will only get better in America because there will be teammates there to push him on and every second week he's going to be competing against the really top guys. I can see him being in the top 16 come the Brazil Olympic Games in 2016. If that happens, then I can't think of anyone who would deserve it more."

Chetcuti recently won a bronze (50m) and silver (100m) in this month's Games of the Small States of Europe in Liechtenstein.

Andy Colbourn, the Maltese national swim coach for the past five years, said Chetcuti is an "inspiration" to the entire country.

"Andrew winning those medals was a big bonus for us all," Colbourn said. "This will be a source of inspiration for the rest of the guys in the team and everyone in Malta. We had never won medals before at these games and he really led the way.

"I couldn't ask for any more from Andrew in terms of commitment and results. He is a great team member and would deserve his chance at the Olympics if that happens next year."

 

ncameron@thenational.ae