Thinley Namgay

National swimmer Sangay Tenzin, 20, from Gelephu, is set to participate in the Olympics for the second time. This time, he will represent Bhutan at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, France, next month in the men’s 100-metre (m) freestyle category.

His maiden appearance at this highest international competition was in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in Japan.

Having embarked on swimming by practicing in the rivers in his early days, Sangay’s journey so far portrays sheer hard work, interest, and determination. It also stands as a hope for many youths in Bhutan who aspire to pursue a swimming career.

Bhutan, as a landlocked country with inadequate swimming facilities, has not seen many Bhutanese learn the art of swimming. Many view that Sangay getting an opportunity to contest at the Olympics itself is a success.

Sangay Tenzin

Sangay began swimming in 2009 when he was in Gelephu. His interest in swimming increased after reaching Ugyen Academy in Punakha. After completing Class XII at Ugyen Academy, he was selected by the Bhutan Olympic Committee (BOC) as a swimmer in 2019.

He has been training since 2019, along with his friend Kinley Lhendup, at a swimming centre in Phuket, Thailand, alongside swimmers from more than 12 countries, with support from FINA, the International Swimming Federation.

Coach Alexander Tikhonov, a former Russian swimmer, is training the duo. Rigorous training is underway in Thailand. Sangay and Kinley train for 10 sessions a week, encompassing four hours of swimming each day, in addition to gym sessions.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) provided the opportunity for Sangay to compete in the Summer Olympics in Paris through a universality place.

A universality place refers to a special provision that allows athletes from countries with limited Olympic representation to participate in the games, even if they have not met the standard qualification criteria.

This concept is part of the IOC’s effort to ensure broad, global representation and inclusivity at the Olympic Games.

So far, Sangay Tenzin has contested in nine international tournaments. Although he hasn’t received medals, Sangay has been consistent in his performance during major international tournaments.

For instance, at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, he achieved a personal best record of 57.57 seconds (secs) in the 100m freestyle. In the 2022 Swimming Championship in Budapest, Hungary, he finished the 100m freestyle in 57.4 secs, surpassing his Olympics record.

During the 19th Asian Games in China last year, he concluded the 100m freestyle in 55.94 secs, better than the championship in Budapest.

In February this year, he broke his Asian Games record by completing the 100m freestyle in 55.42 secs during the Championship in Qatar. In the upcoming Olympics, Sangay aspires to do better than this.

Sangay said: “I hope I can break my personal best and perform my best at the games. I have learned and have more experience in swimming compared to the Tokyo Olympics.”

He said it is unlikely to win medals from the Olympics considering that many Olympians from across the world are also taking part.

Sangay Tenzin said the future of swimming in Bhutan is on track  as many youths are enthusiastic about the sport.

“Back then, we didn’t have a pool and proper training programmes in Bhutan, and swimming was just for fun,” he said, adding that with the help of World Aquatics, Bhutan now has an international standard swimming pool in Thimphu which would improve the quality of swimming in the country.