Sultan at the London Olympics Opening Ceremony in this image taken from TV and posted on the blog ladieswhodolunchinkuwait.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College freshman Faye Sultan is used to going in alone.
"It's kind of a lonely journey that I had to go through," the Kuwaiti-born Sultan said recently. "Swimming takes a lot of time out of your schedule, and if you don't have a team to back you up or to go through the same strenuous workouts you have to do, it’s really tough."
Growing up in the Persian Gulf nation where girls and women's sports are still in their infancy, Sultan is not used to swimming as part of a team — certainly nothing like the 12-time defending league champion Eph squad she will compete for this winter.
But her "lonely journey" has been a successful one, taking her all the way to London this past summer as the first female swimmer to represent Kuwait in the Olympic Games and only one of two women in the Kuwaiti delegation (shooter Mariam Razouki was the other).
Although she failed to advance out of her heat in the 50-meter freestyle and was disappointed with her time of 27.92 seconds, Sultan, 17, says her Olympic experience was "one of the best" in her young life.
She recently took some time to sit down at the college's Paresky Center and talk about the London games, her new life as a college student and the journey that led to her historic achievement representing her country on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
Question: How's school going for you so far?
Answer: It's going great. I'm taking a calculus class and a foundations of dance class. The variety is just incredible.
Q:You have some experience as a dancer. I even read that you gave up swimming for a while to give it a go.
A: I did [dance] a few years ago, but it's sort of different. I did ballet when I was a lot younger, and then I switched over to do a little bit of jazz dancing.
I've never been a good dancer, but I just love to dance. Part of the reason I'm taking foundations of dance is I'm going to be doing some Irish dance and learning not only how to do it but some of the history behind it, which is really interesting. I actually have the most reading for that class, which is a little bit funny.
Q: When did you start swimming?
A: I started pretty late. I started taking lessons, I's say, when I was 9. And then it just wasn't very serious at first. And I didn't really like it that much. Then I took, I think, two years off when when I was 11. I went back in the water when I was 13. Then I started swimming for my high school swim team and my club team, and I started going to meets, and it kind of took off from there.
Q: What brought you back to the sport?
A: My dad is the main person. He's the one who first suggested swimming when I was 9, and then he kind of influenced me to go back to swimming because he said dance was going nowhere. He used to make fun of my dance skills, and he still makes fun of my dance skills.
Q: That's another reason to study dance in college, right?
A: To prove to my dad that I can dance, or that I think I can dance.
Q: But while your father may have encouraged you to swim, something else must have kept you in the pool, no?
A: Ever since I was little, it was just ... Girls did't have as many opportunities as boys did, and I grew up with two brothers, so I got to see what was available to them compared to what was available to me. By swimming and being the first female from my country to swim and go to the Olympics ... It's just something that I wanted to do to change the norm, I guess.
Q; Your brothers are athletes, too?
A: One is older and one is younger, and they're both fierce athletes. My older brother goes to a D-I school (Cal-Santa Barbara) for tennis. He won a national title back home. My little brother is on the national junior team. He's 14 and 6-6 already. That's where my height (6-foot) comes from. It's really unusual for a Kuwaiti to be this tall. I think the average height for a male would be about 5-7. When my brothers and I walk walk outside to the malls or something, we're a sight, definitely.
Q: Was it difficult as a girl growing up to find competition in Kuwait?
A: There is no swimming facility or Olympic-sized pool for females (in the country). So what my team would have to do is swim in a kiddie training pool — the girls would. Throughout my swimming experience, I'm not going to say there hasn't been much competition, but in Kuwait I was training with girls who were ages 7 to 9. There was an age gap.
I think it's really important to have competitions and swim meets, and in my entire life of swimming I think I've only been to like two meets in Kuwait, and one of them was really funny. It wasn't serious. People would show up in, like bikinis. It wasn't the sort of competition I wanted.
Williams College freshman Faye Sultan sports Williams gear during an interview on Tuesday at the school.
Q: So where did you go to compete?
A: You had to go out of the country, which has been great. It started off in the Gulf, going to Dubai and Qatar. And then it sort of, I think, this year, branched out to Europe. I went to Portugal and Italy and a few other countries. It's always nice to go to new countries and experience that. And I love to travel, so it was a bonus.
Q: Do the difficulties you faced competing in your home country apply across the board for female athletes? A: I would say generally speaking it's true, but I would say swimming is even worse off because of the attire you have to wear and the exposure.
Q: Did you hear any negativity from your countrymen in the run-up to the Olympics?
A: I personally never pay attention to any comments, whether they're positive or negative. I've heard that it's generally been positive remarks, but of course there are going to be negative comments, too. Even if you're not doing anything wrong, there's always going to be someone who has something to say about it and criticize you. I can’t tell you what the comments have been. My parents kind of steer me away from that. I was there to swim, and so anything negative anyone had to say, I couldn't care less about it, honestly.
Q: Did you get a lot of positive feedback?
A: I think the best part of my experience so far has been the messages I've been getting personally from little girls who have contacted me through various social media websites saying that they want to be like me. They want to be swimmers for Kuwait. It really touched me. I've cried on so many occasions.
Q: Turning to the games themselves, I know a lot of swimmers don't march in the Opening Ceremony because of the competition beginning the next day. Did you march?
A: I did march in the Opening Ceremony. That's because my race was the last day of the [meet]. I noticed a lot of swimmers didn't march, but I had a week to recover, and it wasn't that bad. I think that's one of the best experiences I've had in my life, definitely. The entire Olympic experience can be described that way.
You walk into the stadium, and everyone's cheering, and you get goosebumps, and it's so moving and emotional. I wish I could relive that experience.
I wasn't happy with my swim. But I was really excited for my race, and coming into the race I was in such a good mood.
Q: What happened?
Sultan adorns the cover of a publication in her native Kuwait.
A: I don't like excuses to be honest, but I'd say ... Right before my race when I got to the second marshaling area, they told me that I couldn't swim because the last name on my accreditation was completely different from the name [the marshals] had. It's a problem that I have. Where I come from, you write your name and then your dad's name and your grandfather's name and great-grandfather's name and you continue going until you get to your last name. They had one of those names, and I had another one of those names [on the accreditation].
They told me I couldn't swim, so I left the marshaling area. I took off my swimming cap, my goggles, my earplugs. And that definitely ruined my positive attitude. I was here, I trained, and I'm not going to swim now? Two minutes before I was supposed to go out, they said, 'You can swim, but it doesn't necessarily mean it will count.' At that point, I was in tears. Walking up to my race, I still had - my goggles were completely fogged up, and there were tears in them.
Q: Want to get another shot in 2016?
A: Hopefully. It's definitely on my radar. I'm not going to say, 'Yes, I'm going to go to 2016' because I'm not sure about the qualifying. I'll see how training goes here. I'll see how the first year goes. ... We haven't had a practice yet. It doesn't start until November. But I met the swimming team, and I've never been on a team like that before. They've been so sweet, and everyone is so motivated and dedicated.
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