Bahrain's Alzain Tareq, 10, youngest swimmer at worlds

Alzain Tareq trains five days a week in Manama, where she has access to 25- and 50-meter pools in the capital of Bahrain, which has no swimming tradition. Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

KAZAN, Russia -- Alzain Tareq led the parade of swimmers to the starting blocks for the first heat of the 50-meter butterfly at the world championships.

Carrying a white towel, the 10-year-old girl from Bahrain was dwarfed by the taller and much older girls in her heat. A buzz quickly built among spectators in the stands at Kazan Arena, startled at the sight of the tiny figure on the blocks.

"I was wondering how they make suits that small," marveled American star Missy Franklin.

Tareq became the youngest swimmer to ever compete at the worlds on Friday, a major step toward accomplishing her goal of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

She was last in her preliminary heat with a time of 41.13 seconds, slowest among all 64 swimmers. She finished 15.70 seconds behind leading qualifier Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, who clocked 25.43.

"I feel so happy," said Tareq, who succeeded in getting a photo of herself with idol Sjostrom.

Her time didn't matter; she is in Kazan to soak up knowledge from her opponents.

"I want to learn the techniques and how they swim," she said.

Tareq trains five days a week in Manama, where she has access to 25- and 50-meter pools in the capital of the Persian Gulf nation, which has no swimming tradition. She attends school from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., rests for an hour and then swims.

"We're not burning her out," said her father Tareq Salem, a former swimmer.

She started swimming at age four, and is being overseen in Kazan by her father. The youngster has raced at meets in her home country as well as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Jordan.

"She has the experience of competing, but this is a completely different level," her father said. "She is loving it."

Tareq is one of 12 girls -- all under 12 -- training on a team in Bahrain. She is the fastest of them all, so she was chosen by her coach to compete in Kazan.

"I was very, very scared to go for all the attention she is going to get," her father said. "She made history and we are very proud."

Tareq was matter of fact when talking to a horde of media after her race, patiently making her way through a gauntlet of television cameras and reporters.

During her first few days in Kazan, Tareq was busy taking photos with swimmers from countries like Brazil and Japan. Now athletes are approaching her for photos.

"She said, `Look, these are my idols. I want to beat them in the future," her father said. "I said, `When you reach that time they are probably gone, but you can beat their times."

Tareq's mother is Scottish, and her father said the family would consider moving to Britain to train when their daughter turns 14.

Former Olympic champion Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe shared a flight to Kazan with Tareq. When she was 10, Coventry qualified for her first senior meet but was left home because she was too young.

"For a 10-year-old to be able to put into perspective her own goals at this meet is really cool," Coventry said. "It's exciting to see such a young swimmer with so much confidence, and she knows what she wants."

Franklin called Tareq "the cutest thing I've ever seen in my life."

"I got in her warm down lane the other day because I wanted to be friends with her, but I didn't get a chance to talk to her," she said. "Every time she sees me she gives me the biggest smile."

Tareq returns on Saturday to compete in the 50 freestyle, an event dominated by another of her idols, Cate Campbell of Australia.