Dubai: Standing in front of his school assembly wearing nothing but speedos and goggles to announce his intention to swim for Malta at the Olympics may have raised smiles, but the 10-year-old Andrew Chetcuti wasn’t joking.
True to his word, that ambitious one-time Jebel Ali Primary School student, now 19, has just earned a wildcard berth for London 2012 having accumulated the most amount of Fina points (740) for his country as Malta’s fastest man in the 100m freestyle.
Qualification was confirmed based on results from his 51.98s 100m freestyle swim at last year’s Games of the Small States of Europe in Vaduz, Liechtenstein. But Chetcuti was only informed of his Olympic slot earlier this month, the night before this year’s staging of the same competition in Andorra (June 2-3).
Buoyed by the news, he went out the next day and solidified his points total with two personal bests, both Maltese national records, to win gold in the 50m freestyle (23.60s) and silver in the 100m freestyle (51.85s). He now has seven Maltese record to his name, having already set benchmarks in the 200m freestyle, medley relay, freestyle relay, 400m freesyle relay and medley relay.
The Marsascala-born swimmer, a Dubai resident since the age of two and former Dubai College head boy, will now participate in the 100m freestyle in London on July 31, backed by his proud parents Clifford and Natalie and brother Matthew.
But the fairytale story stops there insists Andrew who, anchored by realism, won’t be expecting miracles at his first Olympics, publicly at least.
“I’m focusing on times over rankings,” said Andrew, whose friends jokingly call him ‘The Prince of Malta’ for the media furore surrounding him on the small Mediterranean island state. “I want to prepare well and make everyone proud, but to make the last 16, although not impossible, would be very difficult indeed.”
Instead his main goal is to break 50 seconds and earn qualification to this December’s short course World Championships in Istanbul and next summer’s World Championships in Barcelona.
Now in Pretoria, South Africa, on altitude training with long-time coach Grant Kritzinger, Andrew is working hard to improve his mentality and pace on the turn in order to swim smarter and reduce a lapse in second leg concentration.
Andrew admitted: “In terms of medals its better for me to focus on Rio 2016. The best swimmers are still quite a bit older than me and at 19 years old I still have time to improve.
“It’s still sinking in that I’ve actually made the Olympic Games. It’s taking a while to get used to. I remember telling my schoolmates and teachers in assembly that I would swim at the Olympics for Malta and I believed it and I always knew I would make it,” said Andrew, a first year biology undergraduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US.
“It was so emotional when he made it,” said Andrew’s father Clifford. “It’s been his dream since primary school and, when you know your child has such ambitions, you want to do everything you can as a parent to help them make it a reality.
“All the 4.30am starts for training and the financial constraints to try and make sure he gets there have been worth it in the end. It’s an emotional peak.”
While Al Wasl Club gave Andrew free use of their pool and facilities while living here, he still trained alone without a team, making this achievement all the more impressive.
Clifford explained: “I remember watching him doing endless laps, being so bored thinking how is he so motivated when he has no one to push him.
“Facilities were also a problem. There aren’t that many easily accessible Olympic-standard swimming facilities in Dubai. Clubs have to run as businesses, but luckily Al Wasl helped us. If there were more non-profit clubs dedicated to improving youngsters it would be great.”
Coach Kritzinger says the obstacles he overcame are testament to Andrew’s character. “We have a saying in training that ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work’,” said Grant.
“Andrew always gives 100 per cent. He’s not your standard six foot four inches, 90kg, Alain Bernard or Jason Lesak. He’s only five foot 10 inches and weighs 73kg, but he puts in the extra work and it shows. It shows kids talent and physique is nothing without effort.
“This is his first Olympics and he’s still only 19 so I just want him to go there and enjoy the experience. We’re not there to make semis or finals, just to see what it’s like to race at the top.”