Eyes on Rio: Dubai-based Sarra Lajnef hopes to make a second appearance for Tunisia at the Olympic Games.
Up until two months ago, UAE-based swimmer Sarra Lajnef could not get herself to dive into a swimming pool.
Last week however, she grabbed one gold medal and three silver in the Masters competition at the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia.
About 12 months ago, Lajnef, an Olympian, had developed what she describes as a “phobia” from her sport, not because of an incident in the pool but out of frustration and “disgust” at her never-ending problems with the Tunisian Swimming Federation.
Lajnef, who turns 26 next month, was the only female swimmer representing Tunisia at the London 2012 Olympics but the breaststroke specialist claims she has not received any support from her federation. After competing at the FINA Swimming World Cup in Dubai last August, she decided to step away from the pool.
“That was my last competition, I didn’t get into the pool after that. It was really bad. I’ve talked before about how the Tunisian Swimming Federation is not good and how Arab swimming is going down. I just got cold feet and I said ‘I’m tired of doing it by myself’ so I was like ‘I’m done’,” Lajnef told Sport360.
“I was really disgusted after that World Cup (last August), I wasn’t able to get back to the pool until like January, not for swimming, but just walking into a swimming venue – we had some events with the UAE federation where I worked. But I didn’t swim at all until June 2015.
“I felt that I was missing swimming, I wanted to swim just for myself, not for anyone else.”
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It was only two months ago that Lajnef managed to get herself back in the water with a new goal to get ready to compete in the Masters at Worlds.
The Masters is for swimmers aged 25 and over and features events that are split by age-group category.
Lajnef was curious to see how far she could go with so little training.
“I was as lonely as it comes. I was alone, no coach, nothing. Some days I didn’t like going but I kept pushing myself because I wanted to see what I could do with two months of training,” said Lajnef.
“With Ramadan it was really hard, I tried to switch the training between mornings, before iftar, after iftar… I got back to school as well so that was like another burden on my shoulders. I started a Masters in International Business at Wollongong University in Dubai.”
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The results in Kazan exceeded her expectations. Competing in the 25-29 years old age bracket and representing both her country, Tunisia, and her club, Le Club Africain, she won the 200m individual medley, took silver in the 200m freestyle, 100m and 200m breaststroke and was fourth in the 50m breaststroke.
She now wants to try and get B-standard qualifying times for the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“I’ve got my passion back and I really want to try to qualify for Rio. It’s an honour for me to represent my country at the Olympics. In 2012 I was the first Tunisian female swimmer to qualify for the Olympics and I really want to do it again for 2016,” she says.
Lajnef says her federation are still ignoring her but that her medal heroics in Kazan have grabbed the attention of the media back home. She is currently in Tunisia where she is meeting with the Ministry of Sport to see what they can do to help her, but she insists she will be be preparing for the Olympics no matter what kind of support she has or doesn’t have.
“I’m ready to pay for myself. I paid from A to Z in Kazan. I’m happy to do that again,” she says.