Fina World Championships 2017

Swimming: Underdogs thrive in stars' presence

Taking his place on the blocks in Budapest, Shawn Dingilius-Wallace is taking part in the world championships for the fourth time. The 23-year-old, who said he ignores whatever little negative feedback he gets, clocked a national record in the heats of th
Taking his place on the blocks in Budapest, Shawn Dingilius-Wallace is taking part in the world championships for the fourth time. The 23-year-old, who said he ignores whatever little negative feedback he gets, clocked a national record in the heats of the 100m free, but finished almost 12 seconds adrift of the eventual winner, Caeleb Dressel of the United States.PHOTO: SIMONE CASTROVILLARI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Pacific islander is among the rank outsiders to be able to race alongside elite swimmers

He bears little resemblance to many of the freestyle specialists competing at the swimming world championships but Shawn Dingilius-Wallace does not mind the questioning looks.

The hefty 1.84m, 93kg Palauan is, after all, his country's fastest man in water and he proved it on Wednesday when he rewrote his own national record - clocking 58.81 seconds to lower his previous mark of 58.86 - in the 100m free heats at the Danube Arena.

It might have been almost 12sec slower than eventual 100m free champion Caeleb Dressel's 47.17 winning time but Dingilius-Wallace was still in a celebratory mood.

And not only because it happened to be his 23rd birthday.

After all, coming from the tiny island nation of Palau in the western Pacific, which comprises about 250 or so islands and measures about 500 sq km and whose national pool is a six-lane 25m facility, just being in Budapest is an achievement.

He told The Straits Times: "I feel very blessed to be here and to swim my best-ever time is extra special.

 
 

"Not everyone gets a chance to compete at such a major competition."

This is Dingilius-Wallace's fourth world championships after appearances at the 2011, 2013 and 2015 editions in Shanghai, Barcelona and Kazan respectively.

The Missouri University of Science and Technology undergraduate may be an Olympian - he competed at last year's Rio Games - but there is no place on the school's Miners' squad for him.

Instead, he trains six days a week, two hours each session, at his local swim club, Rolla Fins.

He said: "It's not a big deal. I'm not competing against them but (against) myself and honestly, most people have been very supportive of my swimming career. Whatever little negative feedback there's been I've just ignored."

There was no second national record for him yesterday as he clocked 26.95 in the 50m free heats, finishing 111th out of 118 competitors. His fastest time is 26.78, set in Brazil.

A return to the Summer Games is among his next goals after he graduates from his civil engineering course.

He said: "I want to continue swimming after I graduate and try to make it to the 2020 Tokyo Games."

His presence - and that of Timor Leste's Imelda Felicyta Ximenes Belo and many others - in Budapest is thanks to the universality rule introduced by Fina, swimming's world governing body. It allows athletes, even with no standard entry times, to take part in the prestigious biennial meet.

For Ximenes Belo, her world championships debut in Hungary has been an experience to remember, despite struggling to complete her 100m free heat. She took 1min 19.52sec to finished 78th and last.

The 19-year-old, who is her country's sole representative, trains mostly in a 25m hotel pool in her hometown of Baucau and said she was gasping for air near the end of the race.

She added: "It was so tough as everyone was going so fast but I knew I couldn't quit. I tried my best and that's what I teach my kids."

Ximenes Belo, whose idol is American star Katie Ledecky,was introduced to swimming at 14 through a clinic organised by Fina in Baucau and last year started training eight local children (aged 12-13) four times a week in the Hotel Pousada pool.

She said: "Swimming has taught me a lot and I want to pass that on to the younger people in my country. We are a small country but that does not mean we cannot have big dreams."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2017, with the headline 'Underdogs thrive in the stars' presence'. Print Edition | Subscribe