By ROB GLOSTER -- Associated Press
SYDNEY, Australia -- He arrived from the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau ready to take on the world's top swimmers. Instead, he has struggled to keep up with a bunch of eight-year-olds.
Anlloyd Samuel, an Olympian who had never been in a 50-metre pool before coming to Sydney in mid-August, could barely finish his first series of training exercises with some of coach Dick Caine's youngest swimmers.
"The first day he was here, he nearly died," Caine said this week while leading Samuel through a series of much tougher drills. "I thought, 'This is going to be torture."'
Caine, who has trained several Olympic champions, was selected by Sydney Olympic organizers to help prepare Samuel for the 50-metre freestyle event at the Games.
"I called them up and said, 'You've sent me a fellow who can't swim the length of the pool,"' Caine said. "I said, 'What are you doing to me? He's going to drown."'
After a few weeks of intensive training with Caine at the Kogarah War Memorial Olympic Swimming Pool in the suburbs south of the Sydney Airport, Samuel now has little trouble swimming the length of the pool.
But he's still far from challenging Olympic favourites such as Alexander Popov of Russia or Gary Hall Jr. of the U.S. While Popov has done the 50 in 21.64 seconds and Hall set an American record of 21.76 at the recent U.S. trials, Samuel's best is 27.23.
"I feel great," Samuel said. "But I do feel a little frightened."
Samuel was a basketball player and had no interest in swimming until some friends and a cousin talked him into competing in the pool at Palau's national games in 1997. He won eight gold medals and a silver.
"The first time I swam I didn't think I was going to get any medals," said the shy Samuel. "But then I did well, so I started training hard."
He won 10 swimming gold medals at Palau's national games this July.
"His time maybe doesn't compare to the Australians and the Americans, but he's the best we have," Palau swim coach Bismarck Brel said. "Of course, we know we won't be close to the rest of the world, but we still want to be part of the Olympic Games."
Palau, an archipelago of some 340 tropical islands in the western Pacific, was the site of major Second World War naval battles. Its coral reefs attract scuba divers from around the world.
A former U.S. trusteeship until it declared independence in 1994, Palau is slightly more than twice the size of Washington D.C. Its 18,500 citizens rely mostly on subsistence farming, fishing and U.S. aid.
The Sydney Games will mark the Olympic debut of Palau, which will be represented by two runners, two swimmers and a weightlifter.
Samuel, who lives in a hamlet near Palau's capital of Koror, never thought of himself as a swimmer until recently. He remembers watching volleyball on TV during the 1996 Atlanta Games, but none of the swimming.
After training at home, he was overwhelmed at first by Caine's 50-metre outdoor pool in Sydney -- a place advertising Adults - Learn to Swim classes and crowded with youngsters and out-of-shape parents on a sunny Monday.
"The length is very long. Now I'm getting used to this distance," Samuel said. "I've never had to swim this much in my life."
The biggest adjustment, though, was to the Australian winter. Samuel said it rarely gets cooler than 17 C in Palau. The temperature in Sydney in August often dips into single digits.
"You see him coming in the morning, and he looks like an Eskimo," Caine said.
Though Samuel still has trouble keeping up with some of the youngsters in Caine's classes, his attitude has been a good example to kids who have been brought up to believe winning is everything.
"As far as I'm concerned, Anlloyd is the true story of the Olympics," Caine said. "He's not getting paid to wear sneakers, he's not getting a million dollars to say he eats a brand of muesli. He's from a country with no coaches, no facilities. He's not here to win medals. He's here to be part of the Olympics."
Samuel, 19, has come to Australia with hopes of setting a personal-best time. He believes he is capable of swimming his race in 25 seconds at the Sydney Games, and then improving enough to compete in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"I want to go back home and continue on. I'll be 23 in four years, and I can make another Olympics," he said. "They're really proud of me in Palau. When I go back, I'll teach another generation."