ABU DHABI // Something has been stirring in the country's waters lately: a swelling movement to encourage swimmers of all levels in what is described as a family-friendly mass participation sport. The organisers of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Swimming Festival hope to attract 700 entrants - from amateurs to elite swimmers - to compete in races next month. Already, 150 people have registered from both Dubai and Abu Dhabi for the October 16 event, which will take place on the beachfront of the capital's Corniche. Officials expect a further 500 to join over the coming weeks.
"We want to embrace the whole community, which is why we've included so many kinds of events, from the family races to the elite," said Jamie Cunningham of Professional Sports Group, which is organising the event. "It's a great mass participation sport." The swim meet will be bringing some international competitors to the Corniche, including Saeed al Jasmi, a member of the UAE national swimming team, who will compete in the Waha Capital Mile contest, the key event of the festival.
By far, though, most of the competitors will not be elite athletes of al Jasmi's calibre. The Muellers, for example, are an Australian family of five ranging in age from 14 to 50, and all will be competing. The youngest, Paul, is tipped to outkick his family members in the open water mile. He can do a mile in about 26 minutes and 30 seconds, about half a minute faster than his sister Sarah, 18, and brother, Tom, 17.
Paul, along with the rest of the Mueller family, has already competed in several triathlons - a race usually consisting of swimming, cycling and running components. "I like to compete against Sarah and Tom and see my times improve," he said. "I'd love to be a professional Ironman or be in the Tour de France." The family has been in Abu Dhabi for seven years. In their native Darwin, in northern Australia, they had a pool at home. From as young an age as possible, Jennifer Mueller has had her children in the water.
"Primarily, as a mother, it's been about safety," she said, "but it's also such a great way for them to be fit and healthy in a low-impact sport where you're not worried about them getting injured." The children have been competing since about age four and although the teenagers take part in meets at their school, Al Khubairat, and community competitions at The Club, they say it is really hard to find events in the capital. Instead, they travel to competitions in Dubai.
"There's much more of a culture of swimming back home in Australia, but it's growing here," said Tom, who said that even at school it is "a struggle" to get people swimming. "But we want to see more stuff in Abu Dhabi, rather than having to travel to Dubai for these things all the time." Dubai will be hosting the World Short Course Swimming Championship from December 15 to 19 at a new, 10,000-seat aquatic centre being built in Dubai Sports Complex, Dubailand, at a cost of more than Dh1 billion.
When completed, the Dubai Aquatic Centre is expected to be the largest indoor facility of its kind in the world. Al Jasmi, the UAE national team member, will take part in the Dubai World Short Course Swimming Championships. One of its hotly tipped competitors is Andrew Chetcuti, 17, who will be representing Malta in eight events, including the 50m freestyle and 50m butterfly. The Dubai College head boy scooped eight gold medals in competitions in Malta this summer and broke national records in the 100m freestyle and the 100m freestyle relay, with times of 53.06 and 53.10 seconds respectively.
Andrew, who has lived in Dubai since he was two, said he would like to see more clubs and organised competitions in the UAE, which would help raise standards. "There are only two clubs here and without big competitions, people don't have role models to aspire to like they do in sports like football. But access to good quality training and facilities is just as important," he said. "That's why I think the World Championships is a really good thing for Dubai, making swimming more public and getting more people interested in it."
Libra Sports has attracted 400 children of all nationalities, from age three to 17, to its seven academies in Dubai and Abu Dhabi since it launched last year. Over the summer, 1,000 children attended its swimming summer camps. "The demand has been overwhelming," said David Jenns, the managing director of Libra Sports. "There is so little provision here for lessons, but also little provision of development for elite athletes in the field."
For more information and to register for any of the events, go to www.swimabudhabi.com. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org