x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Plucky swimmer Ahmed takes it all in

The youngster, with a vision to be among Egypt's elite swimmers, swallows stomachful of water on his way to victory.

Egypt’s 15-year-old Amr Ahmed, left, may have taken in two litres of water, according to his coach.
Egypt’s 15-year-old Amr Ahmed, left, may have taken in two litres of water, according to his coach.

After his mighty swim, the 15-year-old winner staggered upright in the mid-morning sun on the Corniche Beach, and for just a blip I thought he looked disoriented.

I thought he might topple. I thought he might forget he still had to sprint the rest of the way ashore to complete the race. I thought I heard my inner voice urging, "Please hurry, lad!"

It turned out I was wrong, of course, because it emerged that young Amr Ahmed is a savvy veteran of myriad waters and has outsized dreams but just one basic human problem after swimming 200 metres in admirable earnest.

"I took my breath because I felt like vomiting," he said.

For elaboration: "I drank a lot of seawater. The first lap I think I drank the most. I swam fast and when I swim fast I drink a lot of water, but I ignored it."

You could have carried home bountiful images from the abundant competitions at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Swimming Festival yesterday. From the rooster hours of the morning came a vivid procession of exertion.

From the mile race through to the dashes, there were swimmers normally found in pools taking a turn in the mildly wild. There were rationally ambitious youths such as mile winners Velimir Stjepanovic and Megan Mileham.

There were nimble children and their - (cough) - less-nimble, relay-partner parents. There were people of a certain vintage who placed commendably in the gruel.

And there was Ahmed, from Egypt, who stood up in the water and halted because he had used every iota of his strength save for the fumes that did let him amble to the finish. For a Saturday morning at 9.30am, it's hard to top that.

"Did you win?" the public-address announcer asked him shortly thereafter.

"Yeah," he whispered, his demanding lungs leaving the answer barely audible even through the microphone.

"How was the race?"

"It's OK," he spluttered, again barely audible.

"How was your the race today?" implored the inquirer. "Brilliant," he finally blurted in near-normal tone.

His lungs finally ceased fussiness enough for a conversation. Like many of his fellow junior swimmers, he took right to the water at a wee age, in his case four. "Like he belonged to the water," said his mother, Samah Youssef.

Like many, he belongs to one of the proliferating swim clubs of the UAE, in his case Al Jazira. "If he continues like this I think he will have a good chance at his dreams," said Hatem Hamed, one of the club's coaches.

Unlike the others, though, Ahmed got some early-life training from an ancient and turbulent teacher, the waters just off Alexandria in Egypt.

There, he raced his first sea race at 12 at the considerably greater distance of two kilometres. He swam hard enough to hurt his right shoulder, drank a bucketload of seawater and finished with such acute focus that he presumed he was well outside the top three even though he had finished second.

"Alexandria is full of waves," he said. "Not only do you have to swim, you have to stop the waves coming to you. You have to know how to swim in the waves so you don't get tired."

In the lamb-like water of Saturday, he applied identical and commendable focus even through a distraction when several of the 24 boys sprinted for the water prematurely and ahead of him.

"For a long distance I put in my head only an image of the buoy," he said.

"I'm trying to go there. I don't think of anything but getting there. If I lose that image, I will lose my concentration."

That is part of how you can finish and stagger a tad, with another part the involuntary consumption of seawater.

"Maybe one litre, two litres," said the coach, Hamed, as Ahmed smiled. "It's nothing."

For acclimation from their usual 50-metre pool at Al Jazira, Hamed brought some of his charges including his winning Under 11s to the beach on Friday.

While the salt does buoy them more than the chlorine, he said, they must learn to take front-facing breaths for proper direction, or side breaths when parallel to the beach.

It adds another layer of experience as Ahmed, for one of many at the Corniche, has the skyward daydreams that make life go. He wants to "get known in Egypt as a good swimmer", to get a university scholarship, to represent Egypt in the Olympics. Multiply his full-on effort by a few hundred and you have a full-on event. And when you have an inaugural event seeking traction, you can do far worse than ambitious teens teetering briefly with stomachs full of seawater.

cculpepper@thenational.ae