Friday July 27, 2012

PITTSFIELD - In Middle Eastern sporting circles, Faye Sultan has been hailed by some as a "pioneer" and a "historymaker."

But Sultan, 17, admitted in an interview that when she participates in the Olympics this week, she's just looking to do well.

"My goals are to break my personal records, and finish in the top 50," she said in an email. Sultan was training earlier this week in Spain before heading to London to compete for Kuwait.

This fall, Sultan will enter Williams College, where she plans to swim for the NCAA Division III runner-up Ephs. Her father, Tarek Sultan, is an alumnus of Williams.

" I'm excited to be attending Williams this fall," said Sultan. "I've visited the campus before and it's absolutely beautiful."

There is, admitted Sultan, one concern.

"I hope I'll be able to adjust to the cold weather, since I come from one of the hottest countries in the world," she admitted.

Her coach at Williams, Steven J. Kuster, said he expects Sultan to contribute next year in the sprint, freestyle and backstroke events for the Ephs.

Like Sultan, Kuster said his Olympic expectations for Sultan are modest.

"Qualifying for the Kuwait team is much different than here in the States," said Kuster. "I don't think she has any hopes of making a semifinal or anything like that, but it will be a great experience."

Sultan has made history as Kuwait's first female Olympic swimmer. She is not the first female Kuwaiti to participate in the Olympics. That honor goes to Danah al- Nasrallah, who participated in the women's 100- meter run in 2004.

Sultan, in fact, is not the only female Kuwaiti Olympian. Maryam Al Rezooqi, competing in the 10-meter airgun, will join her in London as part of the 11-person Kuwaiti Olympic team.

But with swimming facilities limited, and opportunities for Sultan to compete also scarce, it was an uphill battle for her.

"Faye is a delightful and bright young woman with a passion and determination for swimming," said Stephanie Sears, a former Dalton native who was Sultan's guidance counselor at the American School of Kuwait. "It was a very big deal in Kuwait for a woman to join the all-male national swim team, and she has proven herself."

Sultan and her Kuwaiti Olympic teammates were buoyed by a recent announcement that the IOC has lifted its suspension of the Kuwait Olympic Committee's charter, citing political interference in the election of sports association officials.

On July 20, following several meetings between the KOC and the IOC, the suspension was lifted. The athletes would have still competed under the Olympic flag, had the IOC not ended the ban.

"I'm happy that this fiasco is behind us, and I'll be able to rock black, green and red come competition day," she said.

Sultan's journey has not been without controversy. Although many, probably a majority of people, in Sultan's country have been supportive, there have been posts on various internet sites and blogs decrying her participation, noting that Allah does not approve of Sultan's path.

Sultan is aware of her high profile in the Middle East.

In an interview in the Kuwait Times in June, Sultan explained that when she trains, "I realize how lucky I am to have an opportunity that many men and particularly women in the Middle East do not have. Other than my passion for the sport, I train to highlight the important role women play in Kuwaiti society."

She was introduced to the sport by her father, whom she said encouraged all his children to participate in sports.

Faye Sultan began swimming at the relatively late age of 9 years old, but after only three years as a swimmer, she took several years off to concentrate on dance.

" I've only been swimming competitively for the past three years," she said.

One of the disadvantages of training in a country like Kuwait, Sultan said, were the limited facilities.

"For about 95 percent of the time, I was forced to train in a kiddie pool," she related. "I couldn't even finish a freestyle stroke properly, because my hand would touch the bottom." Still, her national coach believe the six-foot Sultan has considerable potential. 

"Last year, she was in the Junior World Championships in Lima, Peru," said her national coach, Jose Baltar Leite, in an interview with China's CNTN News. "She is doing well and she had a good future."

Sultan may not medal in London, but she is hoping to continue her career at Williams and swim for her country again in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

To reach Derek Gentile: dgentile@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 496-6251.

On Twitter:@DerekGentile.