Latvian 12 year old girl sizzles Dubai waters with Olympic hopes
Dubai is fast becoming a hotbed for young swimmers with Olympic potential.
The latest to dive into the reckoning is 12-year-old Krista Ceplite, who is still too young to take part in international competition.
But that did not stop her winning two gold medals and one silver in Latvia's senior national championships this month, beating women much older and far more experienced.
And she hopes to follow the example of fellow Dubai residents Velimir Stjepanovic, 17, and Andrew Chetcuti, 18, who are in line to compete in next year's London Olympics for Serbia and Malta respectively, when the 2016 games reach Brazil.
Ceplite learnt to swim shortly after she moved to Dubai with her family in 2004.
Her parents appear to have chosen the right place for their aspiring daughter to hone her skills as the emirate's commitment to swimming is highlighted by the Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Sports Complex, which hosted the Fina World Short Course Championships (25m) last December, and where there are plans to deliver basic swimming programmes to 10,000 children in co-ordination with Dubai Sports Council.
Ceplite, a pupil at Dubai's English College, joined local swimming club Hamilton Aquatics in March this year. Her progress over the past four months has astonished her coaches.
At the Latvian Open Age National Swimming Championship in the capital of Riga last week she won two gold medals, in the 400 metres and 800m freestyle, and silver in the 200m.
It was the Latvia-born youngster's first major competition, but she still cannot race in international meetings.
Before a swimmer is allowed to compete for any country at the top level, they must have reached their 13th birthday.
So what is it like to be a national champion at the age of 12?
Ceplite said: "It feels good and it was an amazing feeling to win two golds. It gives me confidence and even more motivation to compete in the Olympics sometime in the future.
"It was an interesting experience overall and I was so pleased with my results. I was surprised that I could win against swimmers who were older than me. Training is hard but I always push through it and I guess that's what helps me get these results.
"The feeling I got after the races I won was incredible, especially because I was just about the youngest competitor. I don't know of any other 12 year olds who are national champions.
"After I finished my races, I looked at my dad and he was smiling and gave me the thumbs-up. It was then I knew I had done well."
Ceplite's rise began by winning local events over the past year. Then it was on to Latvia last week for her first big competition and three days produced her triple medal haul.
She has just left the UAE for a two-month stay in Australia where she will combine seeing family with competing in the South Australian National Championship, another step on the road to stardom she hopes.
Ashley Morris, the head coach at Hamilton Aquatics, said: "This is a fantastic achievement by Krista. To be a senior national champion at the age of 12 years old is incredible.
"The times she did for the 400m and 800m freestyle would qualify her for the British Nationals and they were just short of the Australian age group qualifying times for the 13 years and under.
"Latvia is a very small country and for future Olympics they would send two wild-card entries. The criteria for this are still uncertain but it would be within Krista's reach in 2016. I am sure of that.
"I sent her parents an e-mail before the competition with predicted times and asked them not to show Krista so that there was no added pressure. Let's just say she went off the scale on predictability.
"To have such a cool head on a 12-year-old girl's shoulders just shows how strong she is mentally."
Her father, Karlis, a captain with Emirates Airline, was "a bit of a swimmer" in his day growing up in Australia "although nowhere as good as Krista" and wife Aija dived competitively for the Latvian national team.
Ceplite has dual Latvian/Australian nationality, as does her little sister Anda, who is seven and a keen swimmer herself.
Her father said: "When we first came to Dubai in 2004, Krista didn't even know how to swim so I started to teach her at the pool at our accommodation.
"I soon realised that it is difficult to train your own child so we decided it was time for Krista to have some formal swimming lessons. She started her swimming in Dubai at the age of five and would go once a week.
"Her first swimming teacher, Tracy Barber, noticed at that age that Krista was very dedicated and had the potential to become really good. Based on this we motivated Krista to pursue swimming on a more serious level.
"Through the years Krista moved through various clubs in Dubai. Her intensity of training increased with every year and at an early age Krista was so determined and set herself a goal to one day to compete in the Olympics.
"To do this, she had to seek a high level of coaching. That is why Krista started to train with Hamilton Aquatics and since she joined Hamilton her times have continued to improve to the level that she became a national champion."
The morning alarm goes off early in the Ceplite home.
It's 5am when Ceplite creeps into her parents' room to ask whose turn it is to take her to the pool. That session lasts 90 minutes, then its school and when that finishes at 3pm, there is time for a quick snack, some homework and then back to the pool for anything up to three hours. After that it is more homework and eventually bed.
That is a hectic enough schedule for most, especially for a girl who has not yet reached her teens.
Ceplite said: "I train eight times a week, both mornings and afternoons. The best thing about swimming is winning medals, but the worst is waking up for the early morning training, especially during the winter when it is cool.
"However, swimming is my life so right now there is nothing, absolutely nothing else, besides my school work.
"Friday is my one free day so sometimes I meet with friends or just catch up with the stuff I don't do during the week."
Her parents are delighted with what their oldest daughter has achieved and the way she has balanced school with swimming.
Her recent report card from English College commented: "It appears that Krista is managing an excellent balance between school and swimming events. She has achieved a great deal this year and ought to be proud of herself."
Ceplite is not only mature as an athlete. When asked whether swimming will be her future, she knows that there better be a fallback plan, no matter the extent of her potential.
"Eventually I would like to be a physiotherapist. I believe I could balance my studies and swimming, plus the physiotherapy knowledge could help my swimming. I know it will be hard but like my dad always says 'pressure makes diamonds'," she said.
"My dad was a big influence with his support. When my dad was younger he swam and my mum did competitive diving. I guess their association with water sports influenced me, but I like swimming myself.
"I have two heroes: Michael Phelps and Stephanie Rice [the Australian who won three golds in the Beijing Olympics]. I keep a copy of Michael Phelps's book No Limits, the Will to Succeed with me and read it before swimming events. It helps me focus."
Those who know this 12 year old best will tell you she does not need any help with her focus.
Updated: June 29, 2011 04:00 AM