Originally created 01/13/04

Palestinian trains in makeshift pool for Olympics



JERUSALEM -- Teeth chattering and lips blue from the cold, 17-year-old Palestinian Raad Aweisat took a deep breath and dived back into the chilly three-lane swimming pool for a few more laps.

Huge nylon sheets surround the pool on all sides, creating a makeshift natatorium and keeping in the minimal heat, but the room has no ventilation, and the smell of chlorine soaked the hall.

"It's not perfect, but it's made an Olympian of my son," said Aweisat's mother, Amaal.

Aweisat is training for the Aug. 13-29 Athens Olympics, where he plans to compete in the 100-meter butterfly. He will be the first Palestinian swimmer to represent his people at the Olympics.

Palestinians gained International Olympic Committee recognition in 1993 after the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords. A Palestinian team competed at their first Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.

The thought of representing Palestine in the Olympics is enough motivation for Aweisat to dive into cold water in the middle of winter. Winning a medal, however, is another matter.

"I have no illusions," said Aweisat. "But I have hope. And besides, this is only one step along the ladder to success."

The qualifying speed for the Olympic 100-meter butterfly event is 58 seconds. Aweisat, with limited financial resources, a primitive swimming pool and only three hours of training a day, finished the 100 in 58.95 seconds during the Palestinian national swimming competition in August.

Nevertheless, Aweisat will be at the Olympics, said Ibrahim Tawil, head of the Palestinian Swimming Federation,

The world record for the 100-meter butterfly swimming event is 50.98 seconds, held by Ian Crocker of Portland, Maine.

Palestine, not yet a state, its people locked in a bloody conflict with the Israelis, has sent only a few athletes to the Olympics.

Aweisat's father introduced him to swimming at age 4. Two years later, Aweisat was not just a swimmer but training to become a competitor.

By age 10, he was winning all the local Palestinian competitions, collecting dozens of medals and trophies that adorn the family's living room.

At 14, Aweisat was traveling throughout the Middle East, and then to Europe and Asia, to compete in international competitions.

He trains in a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem in a pool that was built in less than a week in a joint effort of residents, family, and friends, Tawil said.

They asked that the location of the pool be kept a secret, because it has no building permit from the Israelis, who control this area.

With a corrugated tin roof and no temperature control, the swimming conditions are hardly optimal, Tawil said.

"In the summer, it gets way too hot, and in the winter, it's freezing in here," said Tawil, wearing a wool hat and a thick winter coat while Aweisat did laps in chilly water.

Aweisat used to practice at the YMCA on the Jewish side of Jerusalem. But after Palestinian Israeli violence broke out more than three years ago, the YMCA told Aweisat to either join the Israeli Swimming Federation, or find somewhere else to swim, according to his father.

So the Aweisats and the Palestinian Swimming Federation extended a 17-meter village pool, located in the back yard of several connected homes, to a 25-meter pool, more proper for Olympic training.

After a brief walk in the rain, Aweisat took a sharp left into the driveway of a home, stepped down three steps and opened a rusty metal door into the pool. In a tiny locker room, he took off his layers of clothing and slipped on a wet suit, a swimming cap and goggles, and headed for the water.

He hesitated at first, rubbing his arms trying to keep warm. Then his father blew the whistle and with a giant leap, Aweisat dived off a concrete block into the chilly water.

"I can't afford to keep it warm all the time," said Hussein Aweisat, father of four and a cardiology technician at a Jerusalem hospital with a $1,000 monthly salary. "I'm already deeply in debt. This is the best I can do for my son."

But the hardships only make the challenge better for the optimistic teenager. Aweisat says other swimmers are often impressed when they find out about his conditions and minimal resources.

"It makes me feel proud," Aweisat said with an innocent smile. "As the saying goes, the rewards are that much sweeter when there are so many obstacles in the way."

And what of the fun teen years Aweisat misses out on between his studies and training?

"Well, it all balances out," he said. "My friends get to mess around and just be kids. But I get to travel and they don't."