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Abbas Qali – Swimmer

As Kuwait’s sole male representative in the aquatic centre, he was destined to be in the spotlight during 2016’s Rio Olympics. His road to representing his country came as the result of years of commitment and dedication. His appearance at the Games was a victory in itself – the manifestation of many early mornings, much time in the pool and many hours in the gym. It was at times a lonely road – swimming is perhaps not as social an activity during training as many other sports, how can it be? His choice of sport also demanded a singular vision from himself – he received no support from neither the Kuwait National Team nor the government. We believe Olympians are different to the rest of us – and Abbas’s story demonstrates this clearly. 

At what point in your life did swimming become a passion for you? Swimming was a passion in my life for as long as I can remember; at a young age I used to go to my older brother’s swim meets and training sessions and that helped me gain the love and passion for the sport.

When did you first consider the possibility of aiming for Olympic qualification? When I moved to the United States in 2010 I began to develop a different vision for my future in swimming. I tried to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics but did not have enough time to prepare, so I set a goal for the 2016 Rio Olympics and I achieved the qualifying time standard a month before the Games.

How did your life change in the run-up to Rio? How intense did your training become, where did you train? Did you receive support from within Kuwait during this period? I trained at the University of Alabama between 2012 and 2016. I was a student-athlete there for 4 years, and training there was the hardest thing I have done in my life. Every day I’d wake up at 5:30am for morning practice, and then head to class for the rest of the day – then I’d head to afternoon practice for another 2 hours and more. Add to that all the weight-lifting workouts and you have an idea of what it took for me to achieve a life-long dream. I always had support from the people of Kuwait, but nothing from the national team nor the government.

What sacrifices did you make in order to qualify? I wouldn’t say I scarified anything because I was always doing something I loved doing, and was alongside a group of people from other countries that had the same goal as I did.

You were the only male Kuwaiti swimmer. A lonely Olympics? Or good team spirit across disciplines? I had a good friend of mine, Faye Sultan (Kuwait’s only female Olympic swimmer), with me and had many of my teammates from Alabama at the Olympics so I was never alone. I had friends from Germany, Iceland, Greece, Cyprus and South Africa all who swam with me at the University of Alabama. We all cheered for each other.

What is your enduring memory of The Games? Which of your swimming heroes did you meet or compete against? My best memory of Games is watching the 100m Butterfly final – it is one in a million chance that would happen again. It was great meeting all the current world champions, and even seeing retired swimmers who are previous Olympic champions. I also got to meet many other sport icons from different sports.

Will you do it again? I will be training to make it to the next Olympics, and hopefully will be the first male Kuwaiti swimmer to qualify for two Games.

How has the experience changed your life? Living in the Olympic Village for three weeks gave me a different perspective by being around top athletes from each sport. It is bound to make you aim to be more of a perfectionist in everything in life.

Have you felt an increase in the interest towards swimming over recent years? Are you involved in any initiatives to promote the sport? I’m trying to raise awareness in Kuwait for people that don’t know how to swim, and I’m running clinics for young children to help them get improve their swimming skills through experience.

Simon Balsom