To compete at the highest level of professional swimming, the UAE swimming Team Captain Obaid Al Jasmi has chosen to lead a life of discipline and sacrifice
It’s not difficult to spot the Emirati Olympic swimmer Obaid Al Jasmi amongst a crowd at the Al Nasr sports club in Oud Metha, Dubai.
Standing 1.80m tall, weighing a lean 78kg and with a typical swimmer’s physique – broad shoulders, narrow hips, chiseled muscles and long limbs – the 29-year-old captain of the UAE swimming team is in peak physical condition and still at the top of his game after more than two decades of competing.
But maintaining such a honed physique and an extremely high level of fitness all year round requires an effort that most nonathletes would baulk at.
It’s 9am and Al Jasmi has already completed an hour and a half of weight training and cycling, which he will follow with two hours of swimming in the Al Nasr club pool, before he goes to his day job in the human resource department of Abu Dhabi police force.
The dedicated swimmer has led this life of austerity since he was eight years old when his talent was first discovered. However, as a youngster, Al Jasmi had no interest in swimming. He dreamt instead of becoming a football player, but took up swimming when his father sent him and his brothers to the local swimming club. He has six brothers – four of whom are also members of the UAE national swimming team.
“We were so noisy at home,” he laughs as he recalls his childhood. “We used to play football and we were always running around and breaking things. My father thought swimming would be a good outlet for our energy…”
However he admits he didn’t like the sport at first. “I was five or six years old and I was scared of the water – I hated swimming,” he adds. “But within a year-and-a-half, I was on the national team.” That was back in 1989 and more than two decades later he’s still on the national swimming team. These days, he holds the title of Team Captain.
Despite the fact that his brothers are also swimmers, professional swimming was not a family tradition. But his father was, “always in the sea; and he used to fish… you know how the old guys were with the diving before,” he says referring to the local tradition of pearl diving in Dubai.
As he got older he started to enter international competitions. Much to his disappointment however he was too young to compete in the Olympic Games in 1997. He also failed to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney due to a shoulder injury that required surgery.
When he did eventually get the chance to participate in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, he was over the moon. “My best moment was in 2004 when I qualified for the Olympics. It was like a dream come true for me and I will never forget that feeling,” he says with his eyes gleaming. He recalls how Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum set an Olympic record by winning the first ever UAE Olympic gold medal in the men’s double trap shooting at the event, which further fuelled his nationalistic feeling.
Since then he has been a member of the UAE squad at the last Asian Games in Doha, Qatar in 2006 and he competed in the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, as well as the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou, China in 2010. He also set the fastest national time of 53.7 seconds during the GCC Swimming Championships which were held in Qatar in 2005.
And far from reaching his peak as a swimmer he continues to improve. He set a new national record in the 400-metre freestyle with a time of 4 minutes, 12 seconds at the President’s Swimming Championships in 2010.
Last year too, Al Jasmi, along with his brothers Saeed, Bakhit and Faisal entered the Guinness Book of Records as the first set of brothers to compete together as a foursome in the Short Course Worlds. They also represented the UAE in the 4x100m freestyle relay on the opening day of the Fina World Swimming Championships at the Hamdan Bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex in Dubai.
When it comes to representing his country the fact that he’s Emirati is a great source of pride for Al Jasmi. “I’m proud to be from the UAE because we have some of the greatest leaders in the world here,” he comments. “They care about sport; they care about us and they support us. It makes me very, very proud.”
He’s also impressed by the Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Sports Complex in Dubai. “It is the best swimming pool in the world and it has all the facilities we need to train world class athletes. It’s great that we have leaders who are willing to invest in a facility like that and I think local people like us should do something to give back to the community.”
Although he appreciates the fact that he grew up in the UAE, Al Jasmi points out that he and his brothers have succeeded purely on merit and not because they come from a privileged background. He points out that he often finds when he goes abroad that people have misinformed perceptions of Gulf nationals . “When I went to the Asian Games for example and I told people that I was from the UAE, they immediately presumed I had come from a wealthy background. It never occurred to them that maybe I had worked hard to acquire my own money.”
He shakes his head and it’s clear that construed perceptions of Emiratis annoy him. But wherever he goes, he’s always trying to act as a good example of the UAE: “So people outside will know that we are working hard to achieve our goals,” he explains.
And while some may envy him his Olympic status, the reality is that his daily life is far from easy. Competing at such a high level requires a supreme and sustained effort.
In the summer he takes time off from his day job to train with the national team. During the rest of the year he wakes up at 4.30am; trains in the pool from 5.30am to 7am; arrives at work at 7.30am; finishes at 2.30pm; rests for two hours and then is back in the pool again for two more hours of training later in the afternoon. “My schedule is a little boring because I simply don’t have time to meet up with my friends that often – I have to go to sleep early in order to wake up in the morning and start training all over again,” he explains.
But despite the anti-social nature of what he does, there is something driving him to continue. “It’s like as if there’s some invisible force inside me that tells me to go to the swimming pool and brings me there,” he says. “I’ve always felt the need to set my own standards in everything I do – whether at work; at home; or in the pool. I have to be the best that I can be. When I get my salary at the end of the month for example, I need to feel that I’ve done something to have earned it. Why? Because a sacrifice and hard work are worth it to be at the top.”
It helps that he’s the type of person who enjoys a challenge. He smiles as he explains that his brothers are usually vying with him for the top swimming positions. “They may challenge me; but they cannot beat me,” he laughs.
Education, too, is another area in which he competes with his siblings. “One of my sisters is a doctor; another is a teacher and I have two brothers who are chemical engineers. I strive to be as good at them in what I do.”
He himself has a bachelor’s degree in quality management from Abu Dhabi Men’s College. However he’s concerned that the majority of young Emirati athletes these days are not as keen to pursue higher education in tandem with their athletic training, as he was. “Many young men here simply finish high school and then they focus purely on sport,” he says. “But what happens if they get injured?” he adds, emphasising the need for them to have an alternative career.
It’s a responsible attitude. Al Jasmi himself enjoys his career with Abu Dhabi Police force but says that when he does retire from professional swimming; he’d like to become a coach for young UAE athletes.
It’s clear that swimming is his raison d’etre. “I would be lying if I said I could give it [swimming] up. I want to be a member of Fina [The Fédération Internationale de Natation, which is the world governing body for swimming, diving, water polo, synchronised swimming and open water swimming and later to open a swimming school of my own so I can pass on my experience to young children who are starting off. I would like to encourage them to become champion swimmers and to do their country proud.”