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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

UAE's Special Olympics ‘golden swimmer’ hopes to continue his winning streak

Coaches speak of commitment required from learning to swim to competition mind frame

Abdullah Al Tajer trains ahead of the Special Olympic Mena Games. The athlete is a veteran team member and is renowned for this multiple gold medal wins. Victor Besa / The National
Abdullah Al Tajer trains ahead of the Special Olympic Mena Games. The athlete is a veteran team member and is renowned for this multiple gold medal wins. Victor Besa / The National

Abdullah Al Tajer is known as the UAE’s golden swimmer for earning more than 10 gold medals in international swim competitions.

He acknowledges his soft spot for just one metal.

Mr Al Tajer’s individual gold medals have been in 100, 50 and 25-metre swim Special Olympic world events and this is separate from medals he has bagged in relay events.

“I like swimming because I get gold,” said the 25-year-old athlete, who has been competing in the games since 2004. “Every day I want to win.”

UAE National Swimming Team member Abdullah Al Tajer. Antonie Robertson  /  The National
UAE National Swimming Team member Abdullah Al Tajer. Antonie Robertson / The National

When asked how much swimming and winning means to him, he then extends both hands in a wide span reaching behind his back.

Coach Jamal Nasser explains his student’s single-minded focus.

“He always says it is gold that he wants. He says that is his colour. He wants to be number one and that’s it,” Mr Nasser said.

Another lead swimmer Omer Al Shami, is a poster boy for the UAE team with full page advertisements showing him slicing through the water with the tag line: Swimming 2,000 metres a day that takes real determination.”

The 15-year-old swimmer lists out the strokes he excels in by ticking it out on his fingers. This covers the entire gamut from freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly and backstroke.

“I like swimming. I like it because it helps me get muscles. It makes me strong. I feel free,” Mr Al Shami said.

The swimmers are put through training that alternates between time in the gym, stints in the pool, running on the treadmill or outdoors. At a minimum they swim three times a week.

Their coaches go beyond fine tuning technique and pushing up speed. They double as care givers who are fully committed to their team, well aware of the hobbies, likes and dislikes of each player.

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“You need to have full feeling for them or you cannot work. You also need patience,” said Mr Nasser, who has a day job as a manager with a building supplies company and takes time off to coach.

The regional build-up and next year’s world games in Abu Dhabi has helped set goals for the athletes.

Building strong friendships with the athletes and their families and winning their trust reflects in strong results on the field.

The aim of the Special Olympics is to transform lives through sport and help people with intellectual disabilities discover new strengths, abilities and find success.

Swimmers with autism in the UAE team have reacted positively to the discipline, regularity of weekly lessons and the training has improved their interaction with other people.

“Sport helps to take them from their shell. It helps them to grow and spread their wings. It shows them and other people what they can do. It shows that they are the same as us and that they can perform better than us at many things like sports,” Mr Nasser said.

“Some can be very naughty when they start. Sports changes their behaviour and make them calmer.”

Once an athlete begins training, it could take months or years to teach the correct techniques. Then begins the endeavour to prepare them to pit their skills against others in a race.

“Sometimes it takes four-five years because they have to first learn. Only then can you teach them to fight and understand they can win a competition. It takes time to move from teaching swimming to talking about how they can be the best. It’s then that they start to be athletes. It takes time but all you can do is continue working and keep moving ahead,” Mr Nasser said.

In some cases, after years of work, a sudden switch surprises even a coach.

“For one swimmer, we worked for five years and there was nothing. We trained a lot. And then suddenly there was a spurt. Suddenly he swam all strokes with all the power. It was like he was saving up all the information and suddenly it came together,” Mr Nasser recalled.

He remembers another incident some years ago when a UAE athlete was far ahead of the competition in an international meet.

Hearing the crowd roar, the boy stopped swimming, waved, smiled, raised his thumb to the cheering audience and then completed the race.

Despite the short interruption, the rest of the pack could not reach him.

“All the while, I was shouting, ‘Swim, don’t stop. Go on swim. What are you doing?’ But he was anyway way ahead of the rest so he still won that day. It shows how they are all heart. They need to enjoy it.”

Downtime is a must with coaches playing basketball, football, badminton or arranging excursions during training camps so athletes do not miss their family.

To guard against cramps and muscle strains from the time they sign up as young hopefuls, a regular routine is drilled in about the need to stretch their body in warm up swims before moving to the sprints.

“They are well aware that they cannot start with fast swims. They don’t want to get injured because they love to swim,” Mr Nasser said.

Being with the athletes energises him.

“I’m proud to teach them. I forget any sadness when I’m with them. I throw everything else out. They give me more energy.”

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