x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Michael Phelps inspired UAE captain

Obaid al Jasmi, the captain of the UAE swim team, tells of the time he met the 14-time Olympic gold medallist and how it has helped his career.

The UAE’s Obaid al Jasmi practises his breaststroke in Dubai.
The UAE’s Obaid al Jasmi practises his breaststroke in Dubai.

It is August 2008 and Obaid al Jasmi, the captain of the UAE swim team, is in Beijing to compete in his second Olympic Games.

Jay Benner, his coach, a former member of the USA training squad, recognises a familiar face near the pool and strolls over to say hello.

He takes his latest protege with him to complete the formal introductions, but al Jasmi is already familiar with the man he is about to meet.

After all, with a record 14 Olympic gold medals, Michael Phelps needs no introduction.

"Yes, I stayed with him a little while and we spoke," said al Jasmi the other day, before departing for an intensive training camp in Kuwait ahead of this month's Fina World Championships (25m) in Dubai.

"He was very interested in Dubai and was asking a lot of questions. He said he was planning to be here for the Short Course Worlds."

Ruefully for the Emirates' population, two years on and Phelps will not be attending the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex for the five-day event starting December 15.

Al Jasmi, however, is hoping to show he has benefited from his chance meeting with the world's most successful Olympian.

Phelps, with the world watching to see if he could surpass Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals at a single Games, delivered under immense pressure, winning eight in Beijing.

Al Jasmi may be competing in his fifth World Championships, but with the event taking place in his home country, he too is feeling additional pressure.

"Michael had incredible expectations put on him in 2008, but he always thinks in such a positive way; he knows he will win before he even enters the water," said al Jasmi, who has won gold medals and broken several records across the GCC region and in Asia.

"Like Michael, we have to believe. With the World Championships in our country, we feel like we have to do something for the UAE.

"We want to fly the flag high and see the leaders proud of us. We know it will be hard to compete against the big names. There are 125 countries competing this year - a new record - so if we can finish in the top 50 that would quite an achievement."

Al Jasmi, will be charged with motivating up to 10 Emirati swimmers, including three of his five brothers: Saeed, 28, Bakhit, 25, and Faisal, 19.

But having made his national debut in 1989 and gone on to captain his country for the past 10 years, the 29-year-old knows what is required.

"The biggest challenge for us is to show the people we are capable of competing against other international swimmers," he said.

"All the boys are ready; we all want to do out best, but we know it will be difficult. We are remaining realistic. I have swum at two Olympic Games and want to be in London in 2012 and the other boys want the same. Now we have to prove we deserve it."

Growing up, the al Jasmi family attended a swimming club, but only as a leisurely pastime. It was not until 1987 when Mohammed, the eldest of the six brothers, expressed an interest in swimming competitively that Obaid started to swim with more intent. Within two years he was representing his country in a 50m backstroke meet ing in Dubai.

"We did not have many facilities back then and we still don't," al Jasmi said. "We train in school swimming pools, but they do not have clocks and often the swimming federation has had to take us outside of the country, such as to Kuwait or Germany, to help us prepare for events. That is why the new venue is so fantastic."

The Dh1.1 billion Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex is located on the Dubai Bypass Road and boasts two 50-metre pools, a diving pool and a giant octagonal video screen with scoreboard.

It opened for the first time last month and al Jasmi triumphed in his first race there, the 200m freestyle. With such facilities attracting international swimming events, is it inevitable that more young Emiratis will be keen to test the water?

"When I was growing up, I went swimming with my school once a week," al Jasmi said. "Now each club in the country has more than 100 swimmers.

"In my opinion, we now have one of the best venues in the world and with the World Championships, I am sure. It will help grow both the sport and the interest. For someone like me, it's a dream come true."

Much like a chance meeting with the world's greatest Olympian.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae