BUDAPEST: Like many her age, Bahraini teenager Ritaj Amin, 13, likes listening to American pop idol Charlie Puth on her phone, reading books, and wearing nail polish.
This week though, as the youngest competitor at the world championships in Budapest, Amin has been rubbing shoulders with swimming greats like US superstar Katie Ledecky, and South Africa’s Chad Le Clos.
“I used to watch Le Clos on the phone and now he’s over there in front of my face, it’s mind-blowing, I can’t really believe it,” she told AFP Friday at the meet venue.
Benefitting from the Bahraini federation’s policy of putting young swimmers on the world stage, Amin has followed closely in the slipstream of Alzain Tareq who was 10 when she competed at the last world championships in Kazan, Russia, in 2015.
After a rule change by the sport’s governing body FINA, Tareq — “my best friend” says Amin — was unable to swim in Budapest.
Currently Bahrain’s fastest female swimmer, Amin posted a personal best in her 50m butterfly heat on Friday, although she fell well short of reaching the semi-final, over 10 seconds behind pace-setting Olympic champion Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom.
“I’m proud though of what I achieved today and before,” said the youngster, who began the sport when she was just six.
“Seven years since then is not a lot of time to get to this level of competition,” she said.
“I just checked my phone, the messages from friends and family, and Alzain, are flooding in”.
With her mother and brother watching from the stand in Budapest, she said she kept her eyes firmly focused on getting her dive right.
“I was shaking with nerves before I got on the start block, if I had looked up and seen my mum I would have started crying,” she said.
“I was so nervous it took me three hours to drop off to sleep last night,” she added.
Training two hours before and after school every day, her dream is to take part in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Budapest is her second major meet after she attended a World Cup event in Dubai last year.
Not shy to approach stars like Britain’s Adam Peaty or Ryan Murphy (United States), she introduces herself, and asks for tips on technique, as well as selfies.
Hungarian Olympic champion Katinka Hosszu told her in Dubai that “being the best is all about technique in the 50 fly, the kick needs to be strong to win the race,” she said.
Hosszu and Ledecky, who have won one and four gold medals respectively so far in Budapest, are particular heroes for the teenager.
“Katinka is an all-rounder who tries new things like backstroke and fly every single competition she goes to, while Katie sprints the whole race, no matter if it’s 800 or 1500 metres,” she said.
“I’ll try to do that one time and see how far I get, I just like trying things,” she added with a grin.