YOG Singapore 2010, Day 6: Limited action in the pool, but a universe of challenges worldwide

Youth Olympic Games

It was certainly not on purpose, but having only three finals in the fifth session of the Swimming programme at these Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, almost obliges who is reporting the event to look outside of the eight lanes of a swimming pool. For the records, there was the final of the 50m butterfly, won by Ukraine’s Andrii Govorov in 23.64 (he had also won the 50m free); there was also the decisive race in the women’s 50m backstroke, where France got the first gold of the competition by Mathilde Cini (29.19); and, finally, China earned its eighth title of these Games by triumphing in the women’s 4x100m free relay. These are the “hard” performances, before the last nine finals on the programme, scheduled for this Friday.

But there are many “soft”, happy and dramatic stories behind each of the almost 400 swimmers present in Singapore. They have one common characteristic: they are young. In almost all the rest, everything divides them: some came to this sport because the parents wanted to, others to heal asthma, others to fulfil their dream of competing at the traditional Olympic Games, some by pure chance. Some have all the conditions to train, some have nothing, some spend the day in a pool, some dive for the first time in a pool! Some came alone, some with the respective coaches, others with the parents, all are staying in the Olympic Village. Some were already well-known athletes, some were present in other international competitions, some travelled for the first time on a plane.

Reading the daily news prepared by the young team of the Olympic News Service, one is forced to admit that worldwide swimming is in fact a multifaceted reality, in which the love for the Sport is many times synonym of sacrifices, lack of infrastructures and heartfelt devotion.

Let’s travel to Kenya. From there, comes Sylvia Tanya Atieno Brunlehna, the first female swimmer of her nation to be present at the Olympic Games. “I’m really proud. It’s exciting to be here because many other Kenyans don’t get this chance. I’ve seen many girls drop out of swimming. In seniors, I’m the only girl and I don’t know why. They come in, become fast and then just leave. All the rest [of the swimmers] in my club are boys", she recognises.

The women's 50m backstroke podium: Alexandra Papusha (RUS, bronze), Mathilde Cini (FRA, gold)
and Daryna Zevina (UKR) - credit: SPH-Syogoc/Desmond Wee

From France, Thomas Rabeisen (FRA) started swimming at 8 for a very simple and practical reason: just to learn how to keep his head above the water. But the talent was also there, and now, the sport became an important part of his life (he trains in a club in Dijon), along with his high school education. He never had any family member practising sport at a high level. “I have now a rough timetable!”

Equally motivated are Tiana Tasevska and Simone Marinova, from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. But they have one fundamental problem (and limitation): the lack of conditions of the existing infrastructures. “There’s no heating, the pools are cold and we train shorter hours because of that,” says Tasevska. However, “there are countries worse than us. We can’t complain,” completes Marinova.

Much worse. From Liberia, swimmers Sima Weah and Mika-Jah Teah had contact with a swimming pool when they first competed in the heats of the men's 50m freestyle. "We swim in the open river," said Teah. "This is my first time in a pool." But both he and Weah were not impressed with the venue in Singapore: "We felt encouraged. We were not scared. There was no fear". Their coach Steven Weah, Sima's uncle, concludes: "We don't even have a pool in Liberia. I am proud of them because this is their first appearance in international competition”.

India's Aaron Agnel D Souza began swimming at the age of three and started competing at 5. "My mom put me into swimming to make me fit," he said. Having already participated at the 2009 Asian Youth Games, at the 2009 FINA World Championships, and at the 2008 FINA World Junior Swimming Championships, the 18-year-old swimmer from Bangalore saw “many familiar faces in Singapore”. He trains 10 times a week and is studying biotechnology and genetics.

From Slovakia, comes a lesson about the importance of sport. “I have more friends because of sport than because of school,” confesses Katarina Listopadova. “They even call me ‘Nemo’,” adds Listopadova, who trains in her country’s capital Bratislava. She has two sisters: the youngest one is also a swimmer, while the oldest is practising triathlon. “I love sleeping because I get very tired after my training sessions!”

Many swimmers started the sport because of asthma. That was also the case of Greece’s Panagiotis Samilidis. “I started at the age of 4 to cure asthma”, he recalled. Now, the goals have naturally evolved: “I want to represent my country at the Olympic Games”. The “traditional” ones. At the Youth version of it, he already demonstrated that he has potential to become a strong competitor.

Chang Wang (CHN), third swimmer of the victorious 4x100m free relay - credit: SPH-Syogoc/Joseph Nair

And the stories could continue. Each of the athletes competing in Singapore has already a rich past and, more importantly, a promising future. While telling their stories, performances were not mentioned. They aren’t the most essential at this stage: now, the priority is to “feel” the Olympic spirit and to “know” the competitive environment. This is almost done. The starting block, the reaction time, the turn, the arrival, the underwater section, all these have time to be improved. Singapore is not meant to deal with those technical parameters; firstly, it is conceived to enhance respect for values and principles that no chronometer can count.

Quotes of the day

"The school makes it possible (for me) to be a (full-time) athlete."
- Juliane Reinhold (GER)

"I said to my mum, 'I want to be the fastest swimmer in the world'."
– Andrii Govorov (UKR), recalling the choice he made, at the age of 7, between swimming and taekwondo

“It’s a lot slower (pace) in open water because we’re out at sea most of the time. You have to pace it right. You have to set yourself the right speed so you don’t go too quick or too slow at the beginning. It’s just completely different."
- Eleanor Faulkner (GBR), who is also an open water swimmer

"To others it (my time) is bad, but to me it was good. We are here for experience, but we will strongly do our training for the London Olympics."
- Ethiopia's Yanet Gebremedhin

"I always wanted to learn how to swim. I took a break for two years because I didn’t see any reason for continuing. But when my younger sister began swimming I decided to restart. But there are moments when I’m thinking about quitting, especially after the summer vacation."
- Christian Vom Lehn (GER)