From not one pool nine years ago, the swimming federation head now believes an Emirati can win gold at the Arab Games with the amount of facilities at disposal.
UAE swimming has made rapid strokes of progress
When Ayman Saad arrived from Egypt more than nine years ago to head the Swimming Federation, he made an amazing discovery.
"I did not see a swimming pool," Saad said. "I was really surprised, because what can you do without a swimming pool?
"There were swimming pools at schools and other places, but … [few] swimming pools at the clubs. The federation did not have a swimming pool of their own, there were no Government pools.
"If we want to organise competitions, we don't have a swimming pool. If we want to organise training camps, we don't have a swimming pool ... So that was my biggest challenge."
Things began to improve when Dubai won the bid to host last year's Fina (Federation Internationale de Natation) world short-course championships.
The Government committed to spending lavishly on a venue and, in 2006, construction began on the Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Sports Complex off the Dubai Bypass Road. The centrepiece: a state-of-the-art aquatic centre with two 50-metre pools and a diving pool.
"As soon as I entered the venue I said to myself, 'Am I in the UAE or not?'," Obaid Al Jasmi, the UAE swimmer who has taken part in the last two Olympics on wild-card entries, said. "I cannot believe we have a swimming pool like this in this country. It is a dream come true and nothing in the world can compare to this."
With one of his biggest challenges met, Saad went into overdrive. Swimming pools were added at clubs across the country and, in partnership with the Dubai Sports Council, a programme was launched last year to attract children to the sport. Hundreds of them were bused daily to watch the world championships.
"The World Cup has really given swimming a boost here," Saad said. "We now have the facilities, and when you have the facilities, you get more swimmers, better swimmers.
"Our focus now is on the development of swimming here in the UAE and we are gradually starting to get results."
Saad said another key has been the development of coaches. Three years ago, UAE Swimming signed an agreement with the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) to help develop the local instructors.
"The problem has been the coaches were not really up to the modern standards, but they are improving," he said. "The problem with the club coaches is they don't travel a lot. They don't get to see what's new. "Swimming changes regularly - the rules, the way to swim, everything. Now, with ASCA, we bring top coaches [over] for clinics."
Still, Saad is not satisfied. "We need to keep working on it and carry the momentum," he said. "We still have a long way to go. I believe after five years, we will have real swimming in the country."
Jay Benner, the national team coach, agrees with that assessment. The 46-year-old American, who was named US swimming coach of the year in 2005, has produced two Olympians. Coming from a country with a rich history in the sport, he knows there are many challenges that lie ahead.
"I am dealing with a completely different swimming culture here," said Benner, who returned to the UAE for a second term after spending 15 months here leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"Back home, I had a boy who won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. Here, it's trying to develop the sport and trying to take them to the next level, and get them to the point where we can start to have one or two swimmers who can be competitive at the international level."
That is not something that can be achieved overnight, he said as: The main thing is when you are trying to build a swimmer, it takes a number of years," he said. "Swimming is not a sport that you see immediate results. You lay a foundation by putting work in for four to five years to have the opportunity to have some successful summers down the road."
Benner, who coaches at clubs in the US with 800 or more swimmers, is working with much smaller numbers here in that: "Since the fall, prior to the short-course world championships, there's been about eight swimmers that I have been able to have some consistent contact with," said Benner, who is now at a camp with in Italy with seven swimmers - Al Jasmi, Ayoub Salem Mallala, Mubarak Mohammed Salem, Mohammed Al Ghaferi, Mohammed Jassim, Khalifa Jamal Mohammed and Jamal Khamis.
Both Saad and Benner expect Salem to win the country's first swimming medal at the Arab Games in December and qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
"Mubarak is a super swimmer," Saad said. "We are preparing him for a gold medal at the Arab Games.
Benner said he had been impressed by the effort put in by Salem, whom he said "has done a really good job with preparation", along with Mohammed and Khamis.
"They have been most solid as far as commitment goes," he said. "For building the sport here, that is the starting point - getting them to understand the commitment that is involved if they want to compete at a higher level.
"As far as really being competitive on the international scale, that still remains to be seen very far down the road. If the average world-class swimmer is training 30-35 hours a week, you can't expect to compete if you have been training only 10 hours a week or something.
"But I feel really good about what Mubarak has done with the preparations, and if we can continue for the next six months I think he is going to have a good opportunity to at least get on the podium at the Arab Games and hopefully qualify for the Olympics."
Salem, 21, is coping well with the high expectations and said he is willing to double his efforts to achieve UAE Swimming's collective dreams.
"These expectations only serve to motivate me," said Salem, who started swimming at the age of 11 and won four medals at the GCC Championships last year.
"I have worked hard and will work harder in the coming days, trying to improve my timing. I want to win a medal at the Arab Games and, of course, become the first Emirati to qualify for the Olympics. That's my dream."
TALENTED POOL OF ATHLETES
Obaid Al Jasmi, 20
Events: 100m butterfly; 100m, 200m and 400m medley; 4x100m freestyle; 4x100m medley; 4x200m freestyle.
Described as the “leader of the UAE national team” by Ayman Saad, Al Jasmi has rewritten the UAE swimming record books a number of times. The Abu Dhabi resident also remains the only Emirati swimmer to have competed at the Olympics, earning a wild-card entry for both the 2004 Athens Games and the 2008 Beijing Games.
Mubarak Mohammed Salem, 21
Events: 50m, 100m, 200m breaststroke; 4x100m medley and 4x200m freestyle.
Salem is the emerging star and the country’s best chance for direct qualification to the 2012 London Summer Olympics. He won four gold medals at the last GCC Swimming Championships and has dominated local competitions. Salem set two new national records at the World Championships last year and will be taking part at the World Championships in Shanghai next month.
Mohammed Al Ghaferi, 23
Events: 50m, 100m, 200m backstroke; 50m butterfly; 4x100m medley.
Al Ghaferi has been making steady progress through the years and broke two national records – the 50m backstroke and 50m butterfly – at the World Championships in Dubai. Al Ghaferi was a member of the UAE team at the 2009 World Aquatics Championships as well, taking part in four events.
Coach Jay Benner thinks highly of Mohammed Jassim and Jamal Khamis. Ayman Saad said Ali Saif (under 14) and Ali Naseeb (under 17) have bright futures.