August 11, 2008 / 8:47 AM / 10 years ago

Olympics-Four years to the Water Cube for 13-yr-old islander

BEIJING, Aug 11 (Reuters) - The Seychelles boasts 305 miles (491 km) of coastline, but Dwayne Didon grew up in a village at the top of a mountain and only learned to swim at the age of nine when he started classes at a local pool.

He quickly made up for the late start, becoming one of the best swimmers in his east African archipelago nation in just four years, and at 13 and 11 months is the youngest male athlete competing in the Beijing Olympics.

Only Antoinette Guedia from Cameroon, 12 years old and 10 months and also competing in freestyle swimming, is younger.

"When my parents told me I might be going to the Olympics I thought it couldn't be true," said Didon, whose budding talent was quickly spotted by his swimming teachers who moved him up from a 25-metre to a 50-metre pool.

The soft-spoken teenager found out two months ago that his nomination by the international swimming federation (FINA) had been successful, meaning he would compete in the same Olympic Water Cube pool as world record-breakers such as Michael Phelps.

"When my friends at school heard the news they thought I was playing a joke on them," he told Reuters. "It's like a dream."

The Seychelles is an Indian Ocean paradise of some 115 islands near Madagascar where wealthy foreign tourists flock to wallow in the warm turquoise sea. Despite fishing being the main local industry after tourism, many locals never learn to swim.

"I would say 40 percent of people there can't swim. It's the new generation that is learning," said sports doctor Kenneth Sherwin, who is accompanying Didon in Beijing.

PUSH-UPS AND PAPAYAS

Didon's family lives a half-hour drive from the ocean, in the village of La Misere -- which ironically translates as "Misery" -- one of the coolest spots on the main island, Mahe, and home to the rare and bizarrely named "jellyfish tree".

Born in September 1994, Didon sometimes splashed in the sea as a child but never went out of his depth. Now he enjoys hearty ocean swims and has inspired his sister to get in the water.

He puts his rapid success down to doing push-ups and also the daily shots of vitamins from the mangoes and papayas he plucks from trees in his garden when he comes back from training.

"I'm strong," he says, grinning. "I'm 13 but I'm doing the same time as some of the ones who are 14 and 18."

Didon, who trains around four hours a day back home, will be up against tough competition in the 50 metres freestyle on Thursday, where his fastest rivals beat his qualifying time by 7 seconds. Yet he already has his eye on the 2012 Olympics, by which time he will have doubled his time in the sport.

He is also itching to get back to the piercing blue skies and sweet air of the Seychelles, which has a population of around 82,000 and has yet to take home an Olympic medal.

"It feels polluted here. I can feel it in my lungs," he said, tapping his chest and nodding at the blanket of smog over Beijing. "I want to go back home." (Editing by Alex Richardson) (For more stories visit our multimedia website "2008 Summer Olympics" here; and see our blog at blogs.reuters.com/china)

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