Asian Games: From the sea to ponds, passion has many playing grounds

PHOTO: COURTESY OF AISHATH SAUSAN
PHOTO: SAUSAN AISHATH

JAKARTA - Eels. Trash. Jellyfish.

Sausan Aishath is casually listing the impediments she occasionally faces while training in the Maldives. Her compatriots have described this at previous Games, but it still takes some digesting. Forget those hi-tech pools, she trains in a cordoned off section of the sea, her skill sandpapered in salt water. In an unequal world, we need reminding that passion has many playing grounds.

"Oh wait," she says with a grin. "Don't forget the tides." This is talent literally pulled in all directions.

Some nations come to the Asian Games armed with biomechanic experts, others come young and alone. Khadiza Akhter, who learnt to swim in a pond in Bangladesh, is 16 and is here with no coach. She came 24th in the 100m breaststroke heats. She beat two swimmers.

On Sunday at precisely 9am the heats began and this vast gathering of swimming's talent is one of the Games' signature moments. Above, the curving ceiling resembles waves; below, the pool deck drips with diverse dreams.

The Chinese Sun Yang is first after the heats of the 200m freestyle, the Mongolian Tengis Gotsbayar is 34th and last. But for a while in the warm-up pool, they are equals. Both have a right to be here. Both need to be here. There is no best without the rest.

Sun is stopped for interviews, but those who trail in the heats walk past the media mixed zone, stone-faced and sucking in oxygen. Almost no one wants a quote from them, almost no one cares. But they comprise the field and without them there is no contest.

They come from small towns with big dreams and they won't win medals but sometimes just self-respect. They might be invisible to you, a forlorn statistic, but the field has ambition. Like Sausan Aishath, they swim seas just to get here.

Sun may win the 200m freestyle, but that is not the only competition that is taking place. In a single race there are many contests. One swimmer wants bronze, another a personal best, a third wants to beat the ghost of a national swimmer from his nation whose time he has never beaten. They are all the best of parts of Asia.

There are first-timers here, mothers and Yesui Bayar, 18, an engineer's child from Erdenet, Mongolia. She came 16th out of 18 in the 200m backstroke, but it's up to us how we read that number - third last, or the 16th fastest in the most populous continent in the world.

There is Palestinian Mera Abushammaleh, who comes 21st out of 26 in the 100m breaststroke, answers calmly and says: "I get to show people around the world that Palestine can do something and we're still here." She is 16.

There's Haish Hassan Hussain, from the Maldives, 28th of 28 swimmers in the 100m back, an electrician's son who grins when I ask what's the best thing about these Games.

"Food," he says.

Of all the swimmers I stop for a chat, none refuses. Many don't have slick sports science at home, but none offers it as an excuse. They're here to play, swim, learn, compete. Gabriella Doueihy, 19, from Lebanon isn't happy because she's slower in the 1,500m than she was some weeks ago.

"Bad," she says, even though she has a nagging cough. The clock keeps everyone honest.

Saurabh Sangvekar of India, 24th of 34 swimmers in the 200m free heats, shakes my hand and then his head. He isn't thrilled either because he got too close to the wall which led to an imperfect turn. Swimmers train for years, travel far, then must put all their learning into a few perfect minutes. Most will err and then they sweat for four years to try again.

But the day's star is Aishath, whose eyes sparkle with laughter. She's 30 - "I feel old" she says - is studying, does housework, raises two kids, Nathan, seven, and Liam, five, and trains in the ocean. And she's grinning because it doesn't matter that she's the slowest of 18 competitors in the 200m back because she's faster than she's ever been.

"My personal best is 3:07 and I went 2:57. It's a new national record."

Now she's thinking of the Olympics where she's never been but has always dreamt of. She'll be 32 in 2020 and the Maldives, she says, sends only one male and female swimmer to the Olympics. Still, she's a mother on a mission.

We talk a while and as she leaves, it strikes me: No one at the pool deck knows her story but she's quietly writing it in her country's record books. That is her triumph. She won't win a medal at these Games and yet she's no different from those who stand on the podium.

For her, like them, every second counts.

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