The road to Nanjing

Two teenage Emirati swimmers have become the first in UAE history to qualify for an international event. As they head to the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games, the young stars talk about how their dreams have been made possible

In 2006 Ayman Saad, Executive Director of the UAE Swimming Federation, sat at his living room table and began to sketch out a dream. Saad has been living in Dubai for over a decade now. When he arrived the UAE had just 150 swimmers, spread across six clubs. His mission was to grow the sport for athletes and coaches alike.

Catalysed by a successful bid for the 2010 World Championships, Saad saw the need to build a fitting host venue – one that would not only be able to host the world’s best, but also create them.

If you visit the Hamdan Sports Complex today you will see an exact replica of the sketches Ayam Saad made. The complex has three swimming pools that can accommodate four Olympic-level aquatic events, with facilities for 11 dry sports and room for 15,000 spectators.

I prefer swimming to anything else because it is an independent sport. I need to rely only on my own efforts to excel

Ali Al Kaabi, Swimmer

It is this exposure to top-level athletes and world-class facilities that is already inspiring young Emirati athletes. The Youth Olympic Games (for 15-18 year olds) in Nanjing, China this August has seen five Emirati qualifiers: Fatima Al Hossani for the discus, Hamad Al Hammadi for the Sailing Byte CII class, Yasmeen Tahlak for the 10-metres rifle shooting competition, and two swimmers: Ali Al Kaabi and Yaaqoub Al Saadi.

Both teenagers, from Al Ain in Abu Dhabi, are members of the UAE swimming team and qualified at the FINA-endorsed Dubai International Aquatic Championships, at the Hamdan Sports Complex.

Al Kaabi’s qualification was a particular surprise as he had returned from a two-week training camp with a fever and spent the first three days of the competition ill in bed. Not wanting to miss his chance, he dragged himself out of bed for the final day and recorded a qualifying time of 26.28 seconds for the 50m, making him one of only a handful of the 800 competing athletes to qualify for the Youth Olympic Games.

“I love swimming, it’s my life,” says the 18-year-old, struggling to take his eyes off the training session where his teammates are being put through their paces. Earlier his coach had told me how, at the start of the season, the young swimmer had asked him to find out what the official Olympic times were. The coach told him to concentrate on the qualifying times, but Al Kaabi insisted on knowing just exactly how many seconds stood between him and an Olympic champion.

At the side of the pool, he recalls watching South African swimmer Chad le Clos at the FINA World Cup in Dubai and being wowed by his pace. “He was so young – but already so fast.” Le Clos famously defeated Michael Phelps in the 2012 Olympic 200m butterfly and that is the example Al Kaabi now wishes to follow.

Emirati athletes
Yaaqoub Al Saadi wishes to follow the example of South African swimmer Chad le Clos, who famously defeated Michael Phelps in the 2012 Olympics

“I am independent by nature,” he says. “I prefer swimming to anything else because it is an independent sport. I need to rely only on my own efforts to excel.” School-friend and training partner Al Saadi smiles at this. The 17-year-old is quieter, although he is the eldest in a family of nine children. And while he had easier preparation in qualifying, he knows a thing or two about overcoming the odds. He has been training with the national team since 2009, and won his first gold medal at the Arab Youth Championships in Jordan in 2013, despite being one of the youngest competitors among a highly experienced field.

For the two of them now, life is all about being ready for the Youth Olympics. Their training started in August last year. Every weekend they travel to the complex to train with the rest of the UAE and receive their coaching programmes from head coach Sergey for the 90-minute practice sessions they have to attend every day back at home. “There’s no comparison. Hamdan Sports Complex is a great place to train,” says Al Saadi. “Everything in it is made to Olympic standards and it makes us feel like we should drive ourselves to that level as well.”

Catalysed by a successful bid for the 2010 World Championships, Saad saw the need to build a fitting host venue – one that would not only be able to host the world’s best, but also create them

Despite their training, however, both teenagers have humble expectations of how they might perform, understandably apprehensive of competing for the first time on a global stage.

“We are very proud to represent our country but as we qualified very late we are worried that we will have completed only one year of training, while most of the other contestants will have trained for maybe two or three years,” says Al Kaabi.

For Sergey, the fact that young Emiratis are beginning to qualify for big events is not a surprise, but a natural progression of the work that has been put in. From 150 swimmers in 2002, there are now over 700 in 14 clubs, which means a greater critical mass from which to find and develop talent, of which these boys are just the tip of the iceberg.

“These two young boys are showing us that our hard work will bear fruit, and there are still others who came very close to qualifying for these Games who will have a strong chance next time,” says Ayman Saad. “It is not just their dream to do well at these events, it is ours.”