Older rivals, bigger pool for 12-year-old Cameroonian

BEIJING Wed Aug 13, 2008 11:49pm EDT

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BEIJING (Reuters) - When she steps onto the starting block at Beijing's Olympic Water Cube pool, Cameroonian freestyler Antoinette Guedia will be up against much bigger rivals and a pool twice as long as she's used to. Aged 12 years and 10 months, Guedia is the youngest athlete competing at the 2008 Games and she can count the number of times she's competed in an Olympic-sized pool on one hand.

"It is a bit overwhelming. I'm little," said Guedia in lilting French, fiddling with the green, red and yellow-beaded "Africa" necklace she wears as a lucky charm.

She will be up against swimmers of all ages in the women's 50 meters freestyle on Friday, including 41-year-old Dara Torres who has already won silver for the United States in the 4x100 freestyle relay.

"To be here at my age is amazing. I'm proud," Guedia told Reuters at the athletes' village, where the volleyball players and weightlifters strolling by dwarf her tiny, girlish frame.

Nicknamed "Champion" by her excited schoolfriends in Cameroon, Guedia still trains in the same 22-metre (72-feet) hotel pool that she first learned to swim in, aged 8.

The outdoor pool is the biggest available in Douala, Cameroon's biggest city, where her family lives. Before arriving in Beijing, Guedia had only swum in a 50-metre pool the day she competed in the 2007 African Games in Algiers.

Not that a lack of legroom has ever held her back.

Guedia took home her first cup, for winning a regional swimming tournament, within months of her first lesson. Within three years, she was Cameroon's national swimming champion.

"I can still remember it. I was so happy," she said of winning her first trophy in an 18-metre pool.

"I started out behind the others, but at the end, I don't know what happened, I overtook everyone. After that I kept winning everything," she said.

JUNK FOOD AND DREAMS

Guedia's bedroom grew so cluttered with trophies that her father -- a customs official and sports fanatic whose wildest dream has come true by having a child at the Olympics -- passed some of them on to relatives to look after.

Guedia is not letting success go to her head, however.

She takes her school work seriously and her trainers say that competing in Beijing will more than anything prepare her for the Commonwealth Youth Games in India later this year.

"I started swimming because my dad thought it would be a nice hobby. The competitions were a big surprise," said Guedia.

Some critics disagree with putting children in high-pressure adult sports contests, but Guedia, in flip-flops, red T-shirt and cropped green jeans, is more relaxed than older swimmers stressing about how to gain a hundredth-of-a-second advantage.

She listens to hip-hop to calm her nerves and takes a childlike delight in loading her tray with U.S. junk food in the village canteen. She's also day-dreams about the future.

Cameroon's capital Yaounde plans to build an Olympic pool, but that's still a taxi ride of several hours for Guedia.

"I'd like to go abroad," she muses. "I think I'd progress more."

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