Triumph in their underwear

SINGAPORE -- The starting gun sounded. Into the water they went. Well, most everybody. It  took Sima Weah and Mika-Jah Teah, 17-year-olds from the African nation of Liberia, a beat or two, maybe even three, to respond. Each finally flexed his knees and leaned forward. Then each of the boys jumped, sort of, a splat sort of a dive.

That far wall was still pretty much 50 meters away. Mika-Jah began chopping at the water. Then Sima.

This wasn't a race. It was a scene, one that underscored just how much these Youth Olympic Games are for so many of the young competitors very much a journey.

As it would turn out, this would be no occasion for pity. This was a triumph, and against unbelievable odds.

In this first heat of the boys' 50-meter freestyle here Tuesday at the Singapore Swim School, Sima found himself in Lane Two. By the luck of the draw, his good buddy, Mika-Jah, was in Lane Three. Both boys were immediately identifiable because they weren't competing in swimsuits.

Sima and Mika-Jah wore underwear, white Under Armour boxer briefs. It was all they had.

"It's a kind of a difficult situation," their coach, Steven Weah, would say later.

These first-ever Youth Games have been described by International Olympic Committee officials as more than just a bunch of races. The IOC officials say the Youth Games are a culture and education showcase. Even so, it's still a sports competition. And the contrast between the athletes from places such as the United States and elsewhere -- they prefer in Olympic-speak to call them "up-and-coming" nations -- could not be more vivid.

The American swimmers, for instance, are schooled in stroke technique, how to turn, how best to breathe to maximize efficiency. Some are -- to use swim jargon -- "tapered and shaved." That means they have prepared for the Youth Games through a rigid training schedule. It also means that, in a bid to be more streamlined in the water, they have shaved their body hair.

Kaitlyn Jones, a 15-year-old from Newark, Del., the gold medalist here Sunday in the 200-meter individual medley, swam the morning's fastest time in the 200 backstroke, 2:13.46. Her prelim time was more than a full second better than the next-best effort, from Barbora Zavadova of the Czech Republic.

"I wanted to drop my time," Kaitlyn said afterward. "I did it -- two seconds!"

The American boys' 400-meter relay team rode a strong final 50 meters from Erich Peske, a 17-year-old from Monte Sereno, Calif., to finish in a first-place tie in their heat with China, both teams timed in 3:27.11.

Erich first attracted national attention for his swimming when he was 10. He is already a veteran of the U.S. national meet. "When I'm home," he said, "my friends say, 'You get to swim with Michael Phelps?' And one of the cool things about being at those meets is you can get to swim with people like him."

He was quick to say, "I'm not Phelps."

It's nonetheless the case that some day Kaitlyn or Erich might win an Olympic medal. They have potential.

It's also the case that, as with most of the athletes at the traditional Summer Games, most of those at the Youth Olympics have no chance at being on the podium.

They are here to help the IOC fulfill a goal that Olympic officials call "universality," meaning the inclusion of athletes from all over.

Surennyam Erdenebileg, a 16-year-old from Mongolia, for example, finished more than eight seconds behind in the girls' 50 fly heats. The important thing is not the eight seconds. It's that she finished, a big smile afterward on her face.

Another 16-year-old. Mariana Henriques of Angola, finished more than 17 seconds back in the heats of the girls' 100 breaststroke. Again -- she finished.

For Sima and Mika-Jah, it was assuredly a victory just to be here. The boys train in a river near Monrovia, the Liberian capital. They catch fish when they swim, Mika-Jah said. The first time they had ever been swimming in a pool was here, in Singapore.

Sima is coach Steven's sister's son. He was not chosen out of nepotism, Steven made plain. "To be very frank with you," he said, Sima and Mika-Jah "swim very well compared to other boys."

This trip to Singapore was Steven's second-ever time in an airplane; he had gone to a regional swim meet a few months ago. For Sima and Mika-Jah, it was for sure their first aviation experience. And what an ordeal. First they flew from Monrovia to Accra, Ghana. From Accra they flew to Nairobi, Kenya. From Nairobi it was on to Dubai. Then Dubai to Singapore.

"This is historical," Steven said of the Liberian team's Youth Games appearance.

"I am very happy to have come this far," Mika-Jah said. "All my friends want to be like me."

The electronic timing records show it took more than a second for Mika-Jah and Sima to get off the blocks. Even at this level, the top swimmers get off in six- or seven-tenths of a second, no more.

Comparatively speaking, Mika-Jah got off to the better of the two starts. But once in the water Sima soon caught him.

The two friends were about halfway across the pool when 17-year-old Cristian Quintero of Venezuela won the race, in 23.41 seconds.

It took Sima nearly twice that long to make it. He touched in 46.18.

Mika-Jah finished in 49.47.

Their times would ultimately turn out to be the two slowest of the day, 49th and 50th of 50 swimmers. No matter. As they came out of the water, both boys were greeted with warm applause.

Though they don't own the regulation waist-to-knee suits called "jammers," both boys did swim with goggles and swim caps. "I was very proud of the way they competed with other boys who have assets," Steven said.

"We can do better," Sima said. And, he vowed, the next time that's just what they will do. "We swim," he said, "with no fear."