x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Roadmap for UAE swimmers to make a splash

Top-class facilities and events should be an ideal platform, but Paul Radley looks at why UAE swimmers have not made it big yet.

Mubarak Salem has replaced Obaid Al Jasmi, bottom left, as the leading Emirati swimmer but much work needs to be done on the international stage.
Mubarak Salem has replaced Obaid Al Jasmi, bottom left, as the leading Emirati swimmer but much work needs to be done on the international stage.

When Mubarak Salem finished sixth in the final of the 50-metre breaststroke on the opening night of the Asian Swimming Championships in Dubai, it provided a much-needed morale boost for UAE aquatics.

The performance would not have left China's swimmers - who were smarting from the fact they won "only" eight of the 10 golds on offer on Day One - quaking in their deck shoes.

But it was a start.

Having a swimmer in the top six of an Asian competition may not seem much, but it is a little show of progress for a country still struggling to match means with results in the pool.

UAE swimmers want for nothing, other than success. The Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex, where this competition is taking place and where the UAE team train regularly, is magnificent.

Better even than the London 2012 Aquatics Centre, according to China's double Olympic gold-medal winner Sun Yang.

And there are plenty of other fine swimming facilities available to both expatriates and Emiratis in this country, let alone a fairly accessible sea.

According to Ahmed Al Falasi, the president of the UAE Swimming Federation, the platform has been laid.

"While we are thrilled to be presenting events of this calibre we are equally committed to ensuring these events stimulate the growth of the sport in the region," Al Falasi wrote in the programme notes for the championships. "We are pleased to see that in the past two years there have been significant increases in the number of children participating in swimming."

So participation numbers are up. Then what needs to be done next to harness it and ensure the UAE becomes a genuine player in regional and global swimming?

Plan and prioritise

Velimir Stjepanovic, the Abu Dhabi-born Serbian swimmer and a resident of Dubai, tapered his training to peak just twice this year.

His first target was to qualify for the London Olympics. In March, he swam a personal best in the 200m butterfly - at that moment, the fastest time in the world in 2012 - to qualify, no questions asked.

His next reference point was the Games itself at the end of July. He finished sixth in a classic final, when Chad le Clos out-touched the great Michael Phelps to win gold. Mission accomplished.

Even though he competed at a variety of meetings in-between, Stjepanovic was never distracted from the bigger picture. If only Arab swimmers were allowed to do the same.

Instead, their perspective is skewed. You would think the period immediately after the Olympics would be downtime for swimmers.

Not so. Between London 2012 and this event, the UAE team competed at the World Cup, the Arab Championships in Jordan, and the GCC Championships in Bahrain, while some also swam at a police officers' meeting in Kuwait.

And yet the smaller the competition in international terms, the greater the emphasis for Emirati swimmers, by dint of the fact it gives them their best chance of winning a medal.

"Our preparations for [the Asian Championships] have been difficult because of all the competitions we have had," said Salem, UAE swimming's sole representative at London 2012.

"With so many tournaments it is difficult to maintain the right training schedule."

Long-term vision

Elite swimmers in the leading aquatics nations begin their preparations for the Olympic Games eight years out. However, four years remains a lifetime in UAE swimming.

"I can understand there would be a let-down coming off the Olympics, when you have worked for something then it is over," said Jay Benner, the coach of the UAE team.

"Unfortunately, the mentality in this region is often to prepare for something in three weeks' time. They don't understand the process of working for something 30 weeks down the road." Hopefully the penny has dropped for the UAE team's new leading swimmer, though.

Having reached the final of the 50m breaststroke in Dubai, Salem said he has his mind fixed on a return trip to the Games. And he wants to qualify for Rio de Janeiro 2016 rather than rely on a wild-card invitation.

"I am still very motivated," said Salem, who was so committed to giving his best at London 2012 that he missed the spectacular opening ceremony to be fresh for his heat.

"I realise that all these competitions are for part of a higher goal: making that qualifying time for the Olympics."

Go outside the bubble

The cupboard is not entirely bare when it comes to Arab role models in swimming.

There were few more dominant performers anywhere at London 2012 than Oussama Mellouli, the Tunisian swimmer who won gold in the 10km swim in Hyde Park.

Even the track star Usain Bolt ditched the showboating, in London, and put the hammer down, upon the realisation that everyone was catching up.

Mellouli, though, was so in control of his event that his late attack and ensuing gold seemed inevitable from the moment the competitors dived into the murky waters of the Serpentine.

A triumph for Arab swimming? Barely. Mellouli has spent the majority of his career training in America, and France before that.

Moving abroad and sampling new methods and life experiences could be liberating for Arab swimmers, according to the UAE coach. "It would be very beneficial to go out of this world here and experience other things," said Benner, who previously coached Nathan Adrian, a gold medallist in Beijing and London, in his native United States.

"Oussama is a very talented swimmer who went to America, gained a lot of success, and swimmers here should look up to him for inspiration."

Share the experience

With multiple national records, a variety of GCC and Arab Games medals and two Olympic Games appearances, Obaid Al Jasmi is comfortably the leading Emirati swimmer this country has produced.

It seems odd, then, to consider his a career of what might have been. His talent is regularly lauded by the variety of experienced coaches who work here.

Yet he has rarely been pushed by his peers. For instance, back in April, Al Jasmi had been training sporadically and half-heartedly.

He said he would still beat everyone at the national championships and break national records, too. And he did.

A missed Olympics, a row with the federation, a retirement U-turn and a flighty training regime since, and the 31 year old is back among the also-swams this week. How different things might have been had Al Jasmi spent his career training daily with some of the expatriate talent in the UAE.

With an outlook like Stjepanovic's, he could have been a contender. "No one likes to be beaten day in and day out at training," said Chris Tidey, Stjepanovic's coach at Hamilton Aquatics.

Despite being the wrong side of 30, Al Jasmi still wants to prove himself. He said earlier this week he wants to qualify for Rio 2016.

To get the best chance of doing so - and the same goes for all Emiratis - regular interaction with the leading expatriate swimmers is needed.

"Training together, all of us would succeed," Al Jasmi said before the Olympics.

"I need a teammate. I need someone better than me to swim with, otherwise I will not improve myself."

pradley@thenational.ae

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