Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Reuters) – Yanet Seyoum Gebremedhin strokes across a public swimming pool in Addis Ababa, calmly gliding past, and around, leisurely swimmers as they frolic along her path, determined not to lose her focus.
In Ethiopia, athletes are usually associated with the graceful, wiry figures of the nation’s long-distance runners rather than with any other sports.
So when Ethiopia’s soon-to-be first female Olympic swimmer struts her stuff in the chilling waters of the Ghion Hotel’s 50-metre pool ahead of the London Games, few pay attention apart from her civil servant mother Tsigework Abebe, who uses a mobile telephone to time her daughter’s laps.
“There are no lanes here. Everyone does whatever they want,” she told Reuters while standing by the side of the pool, the interview drawing newfound attention. “You really have to mind your pace.”
Born in the northern town of Kombolcha, the 18-year old Yanet was drawn to swimming at the age of 12 with her family taking occasional leisure trips to the area’s only pool.
The child from a country famous for producing world-beating runners like Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele soon discovered she had talent and started competition a year later against rivals twice her age.
Five years and dozens of domestic titles later, she will participate in the 50 metre freestyle in London, granted under the Games’ universality policies.
A male colleague has also been awarded a spot in London.
“I feel proud for representing my country for the first time at the Olympics. It’s a big deal,” she said.
Yanet, an engineering student, has already won 40 gold, five silver and two bronze medals while competing in domestic events ranging from participation in 50 metres to 5,000 metres.
She has also taken part in two World Championships, a World Youth Olympics and an All-African Games event in the last three years.
Though her chances of taking a leaf out of her running compatriots’ books is unlikely, she hopes to turn into a bona-fide contender as the years go by.
Yet, there is a serious dearth of facilities in landlocked Ethiopia.
Only a handful of swimming pools exist throughout, often manned by former navy personnel as life savers, who were rendered jobless following the secession of Eritrea, a former province along the Red Sea, in 1993.
Yanet relies on a trainer of the same mould, though she is reduced to just making phone calls for training tips as he lives 100 kilometres away.
“I’m working hard for her, in a field I barely know anything about,” Tsigework said of her daughter’s training regimen.
“I come straight from work and push her to work hard and not miss training, but it’s her coach who gives her the real direction.”
Yanet’s finest hour came at the world short course championships in Dubai, clocking a personal best of 32.87 seconds, something she would be aiming to better in the London pool.
“To be a winner first you have to improve your time.”