A teenager trained for this year’s Olympics in the middle of a crowded outdoor pool in Laos, with children splashing around her noisily and others taking swimming lessons.
The conditions were not ideal for swimmer Siri Budcharern Arun, one of just five athletes from the poor, communist state of Laos that travelled to Brazil.
Coming from a Southeast Asian country which has few sporting heroes, she is not expected to win the 50-metre freestyle.
It does not help that she did her training in a 25m pool – half the size of an Olympic pool.
“I am very proud,” the 14-year-old said. “We may not be a big country but I want the world to know that we do have swimmers.”
Olympic glory is normally shared among athletes from wealthy countries – or at least nations that provide their athletes with training, sports science and modern facilities.
Laos is short on both money and expertise.
Siri Arun and her fellow athletes – a fellow swimmer, two field athletes and a cyclist – headed to Rio with little chance of winning a medal.
Only the cyclist qualified for the competition by right. The rest of Team Laos were given wildcard entries, to make sure the Games has global representation.
“It’s not easy because we do not have the same conditions as others,” said Santisouk Inthasong, the other swimmer.
Public pool training
Laos has one Olympic-sized swimming pool, but it is rarely used and too far from the capital for the athletes to reach regularly.
Instead, Siri Arun trained five times a week in the public pool, without any lanes reserved for professional swimmers. She even trained during the monsoons that hammer Laos.
She managed to get her personal best down to 33.71 seconds, 10 seconds longer than the world record time and one that is unlikely to see her progress very far in the event.
But she kept going back to give herself the best possible chance in Rio.
Athletes lack state support
While communist nations are often renowned for putting money into training their athletes, Laos – one of Asia’s poorest countries – offers little state support for sport.
Laos’ athletes tend to come from the small middle class who can afford to pay for their own training, and the coaches rely on the internet for training tips because they lack money for training courses.
Siri Arun’s father works for the United Nations Children’s Fund, a job which meant she could go to an international school.
“There are no sponsors. For our daughter, we pay for everything,” Sengarun Budcharern said. He remembers his daughter’s first swimming victory at a school competition.
“She was so proud. At first, we didn’t think she ... [would] swim so well,” he beamed.
Inthara Kasem, who coordinates the Laos Olympics Committee, is realistic about his country’s prospects.
“It is impossible for us to win a medal,” he said, adding that his country generally ends up around the bottom of the medal table at the regional Southeast Asian Games.
But the Laos authorities have promised to give more funding to their athletes in the future.
Later this year, the government plans to send athletes to Bangkok for several weeks to train in an Olympic-sized pool. That may come too late for Siri Arun, but nobody can take away from her the fact she’s competing in the Olympics.