Of all Olympic sports, there can be no other with a training schedule quite so detached as that of the swimmer, writes MEN’S PASSION’s Simon Balsom. Pounding the water for interminable lengths, punctuated only by the rhythm of a turn at every 50 metres – it’s not for the unenthusiastic. Whatever else it may be, it’s certainly character-building. For Kuwait’s Faye Sultan, the journey from London 2012 to Rio 2016, via Massachusetts’ Williams College’s Samuelson-Muir Pool, was one of extraordinary commitment.
Six months have passed since Faye stepped from the pool in Brazil, having won her heat at Rio’s Olympic Aquatics Stadium, and this veteran of two Games has had plenty of time to reflect. A winning performance – and personal record – of 26.86 seconds was not fast enough to carry her through to the semi-finals, but heat-victory for the (then) 21-year-old Kuwaiti was reward enough.
She left home in 2012 as a graduate of the American School of Kuwait, and returned from her U.S. college’s Class of 2016 an athlete with Williams Ephs, twice-Olympian, and the best-known swimmer in town.
Her experiences, and expectations, differed hugely from the first Games to the second. “The first time around I’d say it was more nerves than excitement”, she recalls. Both times her aim was to compete well and to compete to her very best level. Here, she acquitted herself comfortably. “At London, I had a lower expectation of myself,” Faye notes. Although she was a long-time swimmer supported by two dedicated parents, much of her preparation involved training in home-country pools too shallow to complete flip-turns. “But by the time I got to Rio I had far more experience and had the benefit of four years’ involvement in a strong varsity training programme” she adds, here as part of Williams Ephs.
Although Faye’s first appearance as an Olympian in 2012 assured her some measure of celebrity in Kuwait, this didn’t translate in to a high degree of tangible support that extended beyond some national team training camps and entries to regional competitions. “I did enough to establish my presence in the region as a female Kuwaiti swimmer, but a lot of the preparation I went through was self-funded. I had the privilege of training at a fully supported and staffed program at Williams. Without access to those resources, I do not think I would have improved as much as I did.”, she says.
With the Ephs, she found access to swimming and strength coaching staff as well as nutritionists. Add to this college competitions plus training opportunities in both Europe and the States (with girls her own age for the first time in her life) and, although qualification for Rio was far from a certainty, Faye had been presented with a dream package.
As history shows, politics would conspire to almost cancel any possibility of a second participation, and it was only through a further example of her determination and commitment that she secured permission to compete under the Olympic flag. A patriot, she is adamant, however; “Whenever I compete, I compete as a Kuwaiti.”
Despite her years in the spotlight, she is the first person to dismiss any pretence of ‘celebrity’, although does acknowledge a level of recognition within Kuwait that she may have never had without her sporting achievements. It is this recognition that she now aims to put to good use through involvement in several sporting and other social initiatives.
Is there a third Olympics in Faye’s sights? By the time Tokyo 2020 comes around she’ll be 25 – it’s towards the higher end of the age range for a competitive freestyler, but it’s still doable. She’s unsure about this commitment just now, and there’s a sense that her attention and excitement is turning more towards ways to inspire and empower the next generation in Kuwait – in particular, young women.
“Right now I want to give back to the community”, she says, adding “I want to create a niche for women and girls of all ages to swim”. To this end, she’s helping establish a women’s branch to an existing swimming team, and later hopes to implement an annual swimming meet for women. “This will be entirely female run, and focused on the specific sports requirements of women”.
At the end of 2016 she spoke alongside Sarah Abushaar at the Center of the Arts for the ‘We Believe’ social movement on ‘The Art of Achieving Dreams’. Faye explains, “I feel the experiences I’ve had over the past years are transferable, and have a value beyond sport. I would like to find avenues for sharing these experiences”.
For sure, the execution of a successful life has at its foundation an unwavering commitment to a single goal. In sports, the road to success is truncated: focus and train today for success tomorrow. In life – both business and personal – the objectives we focus on today will develop longer term benefits, and the fruits of our successes can benefit society as a whole.
As youth role models go, there can be few finer than Faye Sultan. There were no short-cuts to building a college and athletic record as strong as hers. Her results are not subjective, they’re unquestioned; they’re real, and she’s consistently opened roads and pioneered a fresh wave of possibilities for Kuwaiti women. Her single-mindedness, demonstrated year after year between the lines of whichever pool she happened to be training in, will hold her in good stead as she performs her most important flip-turn and digs deep to establish a new direction to her life.