For many athletes with dual nationality, choosing the country they will represent can be a tough decision.
Several factors must come into that choice, and you could forgive a competitor for being anxious as to whether they are choosing correctly. But for teenage swimmer Lianna Swan, representing Pakistan was a no-brainer.
Born to a British father and a Pakistani mother in Bahrain in 1997, Swan began taking swimming seriously when she moved to Dubai five years ago and started training with Hamilton Aquatics.
And next week she will compete at her first World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona, where the 16-year-old will rub shoulders with the best swimmers on the planet; a chance she probably would not have got at this stage of her career had she opted to represent Great Britain.
With less than a handful of Pakistani females representing the country on the international stage, Swan seized a great opportunity in deciding to compete for her mother’s homeland, who she will proudly represent in Barcelona courtesy of a wildcard invitation from FINA, the global governing body of the sport.
Swimmers mostly compete at the world championships or the Olympics by achieving either A-standard or B-standard qualifying times, but countries without qualified swimmers receive wildcard invitations from FINA.
“I would get a lot more out of being part of the Pakistan team because there’s a lot more people trying for the British team,” Swan told Sport360° poolside in Dubai, ahead of her trip to Barcelona.
“The British team is really prestigious as well, but being able to swim for your country, any country, is an achievement.
“I think when I first started swimming for Pakistan, that was the turning point for me.
“Before that I was competing in just the meets that everyone else would do over here. Obviously I’d try to beat my times, but when I got my Pakistani passport and I started swimming for Pakistan, it all became a lot more real. I now have to not only get my times but improve on their national times as well, so that’s when I started taking it seriously.”
Swan is a breaststroke specialist and will take part in the 100m breaststroke and 200m individual medley in the Catalan city next week. She holds numerous Pakistan national records and is hoping to set some new ones at the championships.
“I’m more nervous than excited,” Swan said of her looming trip to Barcelona. “It’s always very nerve-wracking when your team’s not there because when I’m there I’m by myself. But over here, when I compete with Hamilton, there’s like 50 other kids and they’re all shouting for you. But at international competitions it’s just me. It’s kind of lonely.”
Rising star: Lianna set 10 records at the Pakistan Junior Nationals in March 2012.
But Swan will not be completely on her own. She will be joined by fellow Hamilton Aquatics swimmer Velimir Stjepanovic and his coach Chris Tidey. Stjepanovic made the 200m butterfly final at the London 2012 Olympics and Swan says the Serb has been a huge inspiration for her.
“I think he motivates all of us,” she added. “Because we don’t see Velimir as someone famous. We see him as a team-mate. So when we were training with him last year and two years ago, he was just someone who was very good and then he made it so far in the Olympics, then all of us finally understood how much he had to do and how much we would have to do to get to where he went.”
Swan’s ultimate dream is to qualify for the Olympics without the virtue of a wildcard and she says she will do everything she can to achieve that goal. Her coach, Ash Morris, says that target is achievable if she continues to work hard.
"Going to the Olympics would be an amazing thing, but I think even more would be for me to get just a B-qualifying time,” she added. “Firstly, because it would be amazing to go to the Olympics but also no other girl from Pakistan has got a qualifying time for the Olympics, and I think that getting to that stage would make people in Pakistan realise that swimming is an important sport.”
Encouraging other girls to take up swimming is one of the achievements Swan is most proud of, especially considering how uncommon it is as a sport amongst females in both Pakistan and the UAE.
When Swan travels to Pakistan to compete, she does so without her coach. She explains that the sport is segregated there and no men are allowed to attend women’s competitions. In the UAE the galas are mixed but there are virtually no Emirati girls and she hopes her achievements can help change that.
“It is nice knowing that maybe you’re encouraging other girls to come and swim,” concluded the Jumeirah College student.
FACTFILE Her biggest supporter: Mother Nadia Swimming idols: Ryan Lochte and Theresa Al Shammar Training programme: Eight sessions a week of one hour 45 minutes each Favourite race: 200m individual medley
UAE’s Betlhem Belayneh admits her gold medal triumphs at the Asian Athletics Championships in Pune were “special” but warned that this is “just the beginning”.
Belayneh, 21, won the gold medal in the 1,500m on the third day of the meet in India and completed a historic double by winning the 5,000m on the final day, breaking the meet record in the process.
It was the first time a UAE woman had won an Asian gold medal in athletics and Belayneh says she is feeling confident as she prepares for the upcoming World Athletics Championships in Moscow.
“I’m so happy this time,” Belayneh said. “Everybody expects gold when you go to a competition but this time I actually got it. That’s a special one for me because I’m the first woman to get gold for the UAE. Especially because this is the first gold in 1500m in my life. So I won’t forget this day.
"I think this is my time. When you work hard and you achieve something you feel special. But I have just started. This is just the beginning for me.”
Belayneh, who idolises three-time Olympics champion Tirunesh Dibaba, explains how she has a soft spot for the 1,500m – an event which she competed in at the London 2012 Olympics and clocked 4:14.07 in her heat. She was a second faster in Pune.
“In the Arab Games (in Doha in May) I ran the 5000m first and I got the gold. And I was expecting a gold in the 1,500m and I ended up winning bronze. But in India, the 1,500m was the first race. When you get the gold in the 1,500m, the 5,000m becomes easier. You feel more ‘I can do it, I have to do it, this is history’. Even if it was raining and there’s water splashing in your face, you feel you have to get it.
“For me, 1,500m is special. That’s my target, that’s my job. Normally I don’t train for 5,000m… the 1,500m gave me the right motivation.”
Having achieved the A-standard qualifying time in both events, Belayneh will be contesting both at the World Championships next month but she makes no promises of what she can achieve in Moscow. “It’s a competition, you don’t know what’s going to happen but I believe that anything is possible,” she said.
Belayneh was not the only one to bring glory to the UAE in Pune last week. Alia Saeed, 22, opened the country’s medal account there by winning silver in the 10,000m – also a first by a UAE female.
Saeed, who typically runs the 5,000m, ended up fourth in her signature event, but she says she is proud of how well she did in the 10,000m. She is yet to qualify for the World Championships but she feels she can run a qualifying time in the next three weeks to book her spot alongside her best friend, Belayneh.
“I’m so happy because I was running the 10,000m for the first time,” said Saeed, who was finalist in the 3,000m in the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul last year. “I usually prefer the 5,000m but now I’m doing both. I will do my best to qualify for Moscow.”
UAE runners Betlhem Belayneh and Alia Saeed may have created history with their three-medal coup in Pune but the unsung hero in this success story is their new coach – former world champion, Abdi Bile.
The 50-year-old Somalian, who won the 1,500m gold medal in the World Championships in Rome in 1987, joined forces with the UAE Athletics Federation this March to take charge of Belayneh and Saeed’s training and since then, the pair have shown tremendous progress.
Bile confesses that the girls were not in great shape when he met them, but believes they can become future Olympic champions.
“When I first took over the programme, they were not anywhere near here,” Bile said. “That time, they ran the GCC championships and did very badly. So that’s when Mr Kamali (the UAE Athletics Federation president) said maybe there needs to be a change and hired me for this job.
“It’s all about the girls. Because they listened to me, they respected me and they did the work and they performed well. The credit always has to go to the athletes.
“They have all the good qualities of what it takes to be a champion and they have demonstrated that this week. Everybody saw that they are world class athletes. We had a very short time together so far but looking into the future, step by step, we’re going to have a big success insha’Allah.”
Bile said that mentally Belayneh and Saeed needed to believe in themselves and that he is helping them realise their potential. “To prepare them it’s not just running. The mind and mentality, the emotion is very important,” he added.
“First of all they have to believe in what you’re telling them. Before you prepare for the strategy and the training you have to make them believe ‘listen you can win the Asian Games or the Olympics’.
“That is really the biggest challenge. And once you tap into the minds and the confidence and the belief, then the work can start. You can only take medicine from a doctor if you believe in him.”
Bile described the difference in their form from when he teamed up with the girls to now as “night and day” and while he is thrilled with Belayneh’s two golds in Pune, he refuses to put too much pressure on her in Moscow, or on Saeed for clinching a qualifying spot.
“I hate to make predictions. It’s a long process, you just have to do the right things. All the things have to come together. Betty is doing extremely well, let’s put it that way. We’re going to do everything we can to prepare her for the Worlds and the Islamic games,” he said.
“For Alia, it is a very short time left until the Worlds. Alia made a lot of progress. But she still has a way to go. We are thinking about next year, not just next month’s Worlds. Pressure, pressure, pressure is not a good idea sometimes.”