x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Olympics: Distractions are few for Mubarak Salem in life and in pool

Wild-card entrant may not progress in the 100m breaststroke tomorrow, but his coach is still a proud man, writes Paul Radley.

Mubarak Salem, the Emirati swimmer who will compete at the Olympics tomorrow, sings Arabic songs in his head while training. Jeff Topping / The National
Mubarak Salem, the Emirati swimmer who will compete at the Olympics tomorrow, sings Arabic songs in his head while training. Jeff Topping / The National

For unheralded athletes from emerging sporting nations, there is the potential to be distracted by all the stardust floating around your average Olympic Games.

Perhaps Michael Phelps will be ordering an ice cream in front of them in the queue at the canteen of the Athlete's Village.

Or maybe LeBron James might have to ask them for his ball back after an errant hook shot on the training court.

Or Ryan Giggs might need some help unlocking the door to his spartan twin-room apartment just down the corridor in the sleeping quarters.

Fortunately for Mubarak Salem, the UAE swimmer who was granted a wild-card invite to compete at London 2012, he is well used to having famous neighbours.

In fact, after a year and a half as a member of the same club as Diego Maradona at Al Wasl, the club which has nurtured his development from nine-year-old swimming novice to Olympian, he is well over it.

"I saw Maradona a lot, not every day, but I saw him," the breaststroke swimmer says.

"When I went to Spain [for a recent competition and training camp], a guy asked me what club I was a member of, and I told him Al Wasl. He said: 'Al Wasl? Same as Maradona!' I haven't met him, though, but I have seen him lots of times."

The 422 days he spent officially as a colleague of the Argentine football great's might have helped ready Salem for some of the distractions which come with participating on the big stage.

But the practicalities of competing at swimming's biggest global event run somewhat deeper than that. To date, the UAE have only ever participated in Olympics swimming competitions on wild-card invitations. Salem was some way short of the B qualifying standard to get to the Games on merit alone.

In all probability, his Games will be over by lunchtime on tomorrow's first day, after a little over a minute of competition in the 100 metres breaststroke.

Yet he is determined to perform his best, to the extent he even asked the National Olympic Committee to excuse him from last night's opening ceremony.

Four hours in a holding pen, followed by two out in the stadium adds up to a lot of time on your feet. Not helpful for those performing on the first morning of competition.

According to Jay Benner, the national swimming coach, Salem's desire to skip a pageant which represents the highlight of the Games for most Olympic tourists is typical of his fine attitude to his sport.

"Mubarak has responded great after getting the Olympic slot," says Benner, who was ranked in the world's top 25 swimmers in a variety of disciplines in the 1980s and 90s.

"His level of preparation has improved along with his focus. I'm very pleased that he hasn't relaxed one bit and has raised the bar with his training.

"It has been very evident that he is excited about the opportunity in front of him and wants to represent the UAE with his best performance at the Games."

Diligence at training has not always been the way of Emirati swimmers, but Benner insists his 24-year-old ward has bucked that trend. However, Salem, who first took up the sport aged nine when a swimming coach persuaded him to take a day off from his first love - football - acknowledged training is not always fun.

Boring, more like.

To ease the ennui of innumerable lengths spent staring at a black line on the floor of the pool, Salem usually finds himself singing Arabic songs in his head.

"When I swim in competition, you only think about swimming, about the number of strokes, and about competing, but training is different," he says.

"Swimming training can be boring because there is no noise, no talking, and you are alone, not with the team.

"I usually have one song playing over and over in my mind. Always the same song, the same words, and every 100 metres it is the same. Nothing new."

Coach Benner has had to alter his own perspective since taking charge of UAE swimming. While in his native United States, where he was named Developmental Coach of the Year in 2005, he was working with some of the sport's elite performers.

Nathan Adrian, who won gold in Beijing in 2008 was coached by Benner in the past. However, that does not mean he does not derive satisfaction from his less heralded new charge.

"My proudest moment for Mubarak was his performance in the 100m breaststroke at the Arab Games last December," the coach says.

"He placed fourth and missed the bronze by a tenth of a second. He raced with great heart and had his lifetime best swim by over half a second when it counted most. Even though he was disappointed by not getting a medal, he understood what he had accomplished and felt good about the effort."


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