Crocs and rays no problem for unsung Asian swim heroes

Alastair HIMMER
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Maldives' Hulva Khulail regularly suffers jellyfish stings while training in the murky waters off the capital Male

The plucky swimmers of far-flung nations who train in the sea where stingrays and crocodiles lurk are ready to strike a blow for the sport's minnows at the Asian Games.

As Olympic champions such as China's Sun Yang and Japan's Kosuke Hagino soak up the limelight, simply getting to Jakarta has been a remarkable achievement for the fresh-faced hopefuls from the Maldives and East Timor.

Better known for its sun-kissed blue lagoons, the Maldives is no island paradise for its competitive swimmers, who regularly suffer jellyfish stings in the murky waters off the capital Male.

"We see jellyfish and stingrays mostly and sometimes eels so I get pretty scared," 14-year-old Hulva Khulail told AFP.

"I've been stung so many times," added the pint-sized schoolgirl, who takes the plunge in the 50, 100 and 200 metres breaststroke in Jakarta.

"It itches so much you have to stop and pour vinegar on it. And also the sea is very polluted."

Such is the parlous state of swimming in the Maldives there is no proper pool available.

Khulail and team mate Haish Hassan instead use the Indian Ocean, sharing a 25-metre area marked out by floating blocks with fish and other creatures -- often at night.

"It's hard for us to swim in a pool because the water is very dense," explained science buff Hassan, also 14, who will tackle the backstroke and breaststroke, plus the 400m freestyle.

"The seawater is easier to swim in, but sometimes practice gets cancelled because of the water pollution. We've all complained about it."

- Croc-infested waters -

Another swimmer poised to become one of the unsung heroes of the Games is East Timor's Imelda Felycita Ximenes Belo, who only learned to swim five years ago.

The 19-year-old trailblazer will be the first Timorese swimmer to compete at the regional event, which officially opens on Saturday.

But Belo, whose role model is American Olympic star Katie Ledecky, risks life and limb as she trains in an ocean infested with saltwater crocodiles.

Many beaches in East Timor are unswimmable and communities live in fear of crocodile attacks -- but it does not stop Belo.

"There's crocodiles in the sea and they can be really dangerous," shrugged freestyler Belo, whose other Asian Games goal is to take a selfie with her crush, Singapore hunk Joseph Schooling.

"I can't go out too deep because you can't see. My parents worry that I might get eaten but I just pray to God to protect me from the crocs."

For Nepal's swimmers, it's not so much sea monsters they fear but the prospect of turning into couch potatoes -- for seven months of the year it is too cold to use the country's only 50m pool.

"We can only train for five months and you can also have political strikes too so you lose more days," said Sirish Gurung, who will swim the 50 and 100m freestyle.

"In the winter there's nothing to do, I just eat burgers and fries. It's a miracle that we're here!"