SINGAPORE, August 17 – Excited Liberians Sima Weah and Mika-Jah Teah, who usually train in a river, experienced a swimming pool for the first time ever on Tuesday when they competed at the Youth Olympic Games.The pair took part in the men’s 50m freestyle heats and finished 24 seconds behind the fastest qualifiers.
Just being in Singapore was an achievement, having travelled on their first airplane to get here during a mammoth 12,000-kilometre (7,500-mile) trip that took them from Liberia to Ghana, then through Kenya and Dubai to Singapore.
"We swim in the open river," said Teah. "This is my first time in a pool."
The race was a first in many respects.
Liberia, wracked for years by civil war that ruined infrastructure and left the economy in tatters, has competed in 10 Summer Olympics but only in athletics and boxing.
Weah and Teah are the first athletes to represent their country internationally in swimming.
The 17-year-olds train in the Rockspring Valley River near Liberia’s capital Monrovia, where they often have to deal with aquatic life such as crabs and kismet fish, which they catch as they swim.
Weah was impressed but not overawed when he first saw the facilities at the Singapore Sports School.
"I felt encouraged," he said "I was not scared. There was no fear.
"I was hoping to win, but I am just happy that I came here with my friends."
Their coach Steven Weah, Sima’s uncle, is a FINA-certified coach who first introduced his nephew to the sport.
"We don’t even have a pool in Liberia," he said. "I am proud of them because this is their first appearance in international competition."
The Youth Olympics, which involve athletes from 14 to 18, are being held for the first time.