Dubai-based swimmer grows a beard for Olympic training

Decisions to take up swimming instead of football and grow facial hair to make training more difficult sets Portuguese Tiago Venancio apart from the rest.

The Portuguese Tiago Venancio, centre, has grown a beard to make it harder for himself while training in the water.
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DUBAI // Given his ambivalence to cold water, it might be deduced that Tiago Venancio had grown his lengthy beard to keep himself warm ahead of this week's trip to London.

At 26°C, the water in the Olympic Park Aquatics Centre is some four degrees cooler than the average leisure centre swimming pool, and far fresher than the Arabian Gulf in summer.

With that in mind, perhaps he will wear a coat and thermals when he starts his campaign at the Olympic trials this morning, when three Dubai-based Olympic swimming hopefuls compete in the 200 metres freestyle heats.

Not so, apparently. The beard, plus any other superficial hair, will have been clipped by start time, to speed the flow through the water during competition.

It was grown specifically with the intention of increasing friction in the water and thus making training harder. Competition swimming should thus feel a breeze by comparison. "It makes training harder," Venancio, who is targeting a third Olympic appearance for Portugal, said of his beard.

"You feel the difference when it comes to competition. In the butterfly, when you lift your head from the water to breathe, you can feel the beard going like crazy."

At 24, Venancio is "the old man of the team," according to Chris Tidey, his coach and sponsor at Hamilton Aquatics in the UAE.

Tidey invited the Portuguese to train at his Dubai academy after watching him compete at an event here last year.

It was an easy move for Venancio, who had been based in Madrid for the previous two years, to make. It is warm - which seems to be important to him - and the rest of the population are obsessed by football.

So not too different to back home in Lisbon, then, where he is the one member of his family who swims instead of playing football. His younger brother is on the books of Benfica's youth team.

Venancio qualified to race in the 100m freestyle at the 2004 Olympics in Athens aged 16, making him the youngest competitor on the Portugal team.

He attained the automatic qualifying standard at the European Junior Championships four weeks before the Games, and he readily admits he was starry-eyed when he arrived in Greece.

"I wasn't expecting it, then I went to the Olympics [in 2004] as if it was a holiday," he said. "I was like, 'Wow, this is amazing'."

By the time he went to Beijing four years later, he had his game face on.

"You need to be really confident if you are going to do well, because you have world champion swimmers who don't make the semi-finals or finals," he said. "There is lots of pressure ... all the media from your country focused on you. It is crazy."