After finishing high school and then his first year of university studies in Syria, Omar Abbass seized the opportunity as a FINA Scholarship holder to join the FINA Training Centre programme in Phuket, Thailand.
Progression and development look to be on an upward trajectory as the 23-year-old set personal best in the 100m and 200m freestyle events at the Word Swimming Championships (25m) in Melbourne. Omar Abbass’s performances in Australia also set two Syrian national records.
Congratulations on making it to the World Swimming Championships (25m) in Melbourne. How have your found your time in Australia?
Yes, this is my first time in Australia and it's been an amazing place to visit. I can tell you that the first part of the week the weather was just okay, but now that it's gotten a lot better I expect that my teammates and I will go sightseeing around Melbourne City.
If you were to take a guess at the temperature back at your home today, what would it likely be?
Although my home country is Syria, I have been living in Thailand and a member of the World Aquatics (FINA) Training program for about two years. I think it is cold in Damascus today, probably only 8 degrees Celsius. In Phuket, where our training program is based, it's the rainy season and likely 24 degrees Celsius.
We’ve seen you compete at several international competitions in addition to here in Melbourne. Do you have a favourite memory from a previous major swimming event?
I have competed in several World Aquatics events including three world championships: the World Championships in Gwangju 2019, the world short course championships in last year in Abu Dhabi, then the long and short course World Championships this year, in Budapest and Melbourne, respectively.
But my favourite memory has to be from a World Cup event in Kazan (Russia). I swam my best freestyle times in both the 200m and 400m events. They were my best long course times, but the heartbreak was ninth place finishes in both events, so I didn't advance to the finals.
We are almost at the end of the meet, what performance has impressed you most?
One of my teammates swam a great time in the 200m freestyle today. Enkhkhuslen Batbayar is from Mongolia and she is really a hard worker. We call her the Mongolian Machine and it's no surprise that she dropped two seconds off her personal best in this event.
What about your performances at these championships?
My performances in Melbourne have been really good. I really prefer long course competitions to short course mostly because racing in short course is painful for my legs because of all the turns.
Are there any traditions or race prep strategies that you consistently apply before you get on the blocks to race?
As I approach the deck, I like to shake my legs and relax. When I get near the blocks, I crouch down and stare at the starting block. I am thinking about the race and how fast I can swim, and this helps me focus.
Is there some piece of advice or wisdom that either your coach or a former member of your national team gave you?
This is something that I like to say to myself and others: "Always forward never backward." I am always looking forward to everything I do.
Who is your favourite athlete?
David Popovici. It's the first time that we see a skinny guy racing and winning in the 100m. I think that Popovici has changed some of the rules for fast swimming.
What’s it like living and training at a FINA Training Centre?
The FINA Training Centre programme in Phuket is a really big team and my teammates and coaches are a great support group for each other. Coach Alex is someone that I always speak to before my race and he always offers great advice and knows the right things to say to motivate me. Even though he's not in Melbourne he is always in touch with us.
You also recently received a FINA Scholarship to help with your training and racing. How has this helped you progress in your career?
I joined the FINA Training programme in 2019, but due to Covid-19, we had to disband for a year. I returned to the programme after the Budapest World Championships in July because it's not as good to be training in our own country.
Everyone in the program is now living far away from their family, but our team is our new family. The program has been an amazing opportunity for all of us. It gives us a great chance to develop and show our talents. Together as members of the FINA Training programme, we can show that we can do something to improve our swimming careers.
While we’re still at the World championships with more racing to go for you here in Melbourne, let's take a moment to look ahead to next July for the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan.
The next step is the World Championships in Fukuoka and the next big step is to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
The times have become faster but I can't say it will be impossible, but it will be hard. Nothing will come easy.
Contributing: Gregory Eggert