The Senegalese swimmer is hoping his Olympic Solidarity scholarship will help him make a real splash in London 2012.
How has the Solidarity programme helped you?
The Olympic Solidarity programme helps hugely. Last year, for example, I was having financial troubles and I had to work to be able to pay my bills and to continue training. I couldn't travel to the African Championships because I had to work, so the Solidarity programme helped to pay my way and participate in competitions and events I wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend.
So it has effectively allowed you to continue chasing your dream?
It’s always been my dream to achieve something in sport, representing Senegal. There are not many black African swimmers, but I’ve persisted by telling myself that we will make a breakthrough. Olympic Solidarity has allowed me to follow my dream.
Tell us about swimming in Senegal.
It’s not the national sport in Senegal, that’s for sure. But we’re starting to make real progress. Ever since I began competing at the top level, one of my objectives has been to help develop swimming in Africa – not just Senegal – to educate and inspire kids so that they start swimming and understand what swimming is all about.
How hard is it to grow up as an ambitious swimmer in Africa?
Many countries in Africa don’t have swimming pools or adequate facilities. Swimming is also a hard sport and you have to be passionate about it if you want to succeed. It certainly won’t make you a millionaire, and most athletes want to make a living. We do it because we're passionate about the sport, not for the money.
Do you think your success has helped change peoples’ attitudes?
I’ve been African champion twice and medalled several times, which is something our national sport (football) hasn’t succeeded in doing. It shows that swimming is starting to progress. And there are a few younger swimmers who are starting to come up the ranks and show some good results. It’s promising for the future.
You competed at the Sydney Games in 2000. How did that come about?
I was invited to Sydney to take part and ever since then it has been my objective to qualify for the Olympic Games by my own right. The experience of seeing big swimmers in the flesh really motivated me. It was my first real international meet and it did me a lot of good, in the sense that I got to meet some big champions and to better understand the culture of swimming.
I came to the sport quite late, at 13 years old. So when I was in Sydney two years later, I saw the times everyone was doing and that’s when I realised the work I had in front of me.
You are arguably Africa’s strongest swimmer, but have you made noticeable progress?
In Beijing I swam 1:02, so I’m getting steadily better. It really brought me up to international level. The best swimmers in the world do the 100m breaststroke in one minute. Last year I swam a personal best of 1:01 without really having a solid training base under my belt, so I hope that in London I can keep going and get a real result.
How do you maintain your motivation?
I’ve always loved swimming. I left everyone behind in Senegal to follow my dream. It’s a very personal thing; I know I’ve got something to offer the sport because I know what I’m capable of. The day I do something at the Olympic Games, I’m sure all of Africa will sit up and take notice, and that’s going to help inspire a lot of kids in Africa to take up swimming.