x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Waves of optimism for UAE at World Junior Swimming Championships

Ashraf Salah, the UAE coach who only took over the team two weeks before the start of the tournament, has taken many positives from the past week.

Hamdan bin Mohammed Sports Complex has seen high drama at major international events.
Hamdan bin Mohammed Sports Complex has seen high drama at major international events.

"Way better than London," was Olympic champion Chad Le Clos's glowing appraisal of Hamdan bin Mohammed Sports Complex during last October's Fina World Swimming Championships. "Dubai has one of the best facilities in the world," he said. "If we had this in South Africa we'd have a million more swimmers. It's unbelievable."

Saturday saw the conclusion of the Fina World Junior Championships at the centre.

"You guys should use it a lot more," Le Clos had said in a message to budding Emiratis.

Unfortunately, the facilities remain mostly unused year round and swimming continues to lag behind most major sports.

The UAE contingent in this tournament numbered only 11, and none in the girls' section. It was always going to be a tough task competing against swimmers from 92 other countries.

However, Ashraf Salah, the UAE coach who only took over the team two weeks before the start of the tournament after the departure of the previous trainers, has taken many positives from the past week.

"Considering the limited preparation time I had with the boys, their standards were very good," Salah, head coach at Al Ain club, said on Saturday. "In terms of participation, it was a very big step for us as it gave the boys a chance to interact with world champions from around the world and gain experience. This helps their mentality."

Mental conditioning of the young swimmers is high on Salah's list of priorities.

"Kids here can get very bored if they don't have set goals," the Egyptian national says. "But for me one of the big positives of this tournament has been the application and attitude of the team, they all gave 100 per cent."

The country's best prospect Yaaqoub Al Saadi and teammate Marwan Al Hammadi performed admirably in the 50m backstroke heats on Wednesday.

Despite their efforts, both fell well short of challenging the world's best young talent.

Salah has taken solace in the improvements by his team, and he is already looking forward to the next challenge.

"The personal records of the players were actually very good, they improved on previous times," he said. "Our main aim is the upcoming Gulf competition in October, and taking part here has been great preparation for that."

In a wider context, Salah says major developments are needed if the UAE is to produce swimming champions.

The UAE Swimming Federation team recently started relocation programmes, bringing some of the best talent from around the country to Dubai so they can benefit from swimming facilities such as the ones at Hamdan Complex.

It is a good start, but Salah says more needs to be done.

"Hamdan Sports Complex is still only rented by the federation for training," he said. "At Al Ain we have great facilities, too, but I am one of those who believes that we must provide more swimming pools than we currently do."

Le Clos and others may laud the quality, but we need numbers as well. We need to have a strong base, more swimming pools will give kids more opportunities," he added, highlighting the limited number of children who take the sport in this country. "Then, if we're lucky, maybe 10 or 15 will emerge out of every 5,000 perhaps."

It will be a long time before Salah and UAE officials have the luxury of such numbers. For that to happen, a major change in "culture and attitude" is needed.

"We've made mistakes in some our training programmes but we are working hard to fix them," Salah says on recent preparation.

Mostly, he believes that youngsters need to be pushed, and encouraged, by those close to them.

"For example, none of the parents or families of our boys actually attended the event," he said, although he was keen point out that Al Saadi's father, for one, retains huge interest in his son's career and is constantly in contact with Salah, mostly by phone.

"At Al Ain I encourage the parents to bring their kids to the club two to three times a week, to be involved in their development," Salah said. "Unfortunately some of the older kids have gotten used to the prevailing apathy."

Despite that, Salah remains positive."I am targeting kids of six or seven, perhaps children of former swimmers and sportsmen," he said. "We need to work on the next generation."

After the noise and colour of the last week, the young champions are on their way home, medals around their necks. They will not soon forget Hamdan Sports Complex.

It's high time the UAE's next generation benefits as well.


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