The first time I saw Farida Osman in action, she was 16 and cleared the pitch at the 2011 Pan Arab Games in Doha, winning seven gold in the pool and making the process seem easy.
A decade later, the Egyptian has firmly established herself as the fastest swimmer in Africa and the Arab world and is the only athlete from her country to reach the podium at the FINA World Swimming Championships, clinching bronze in 2017 and 2019 in the 50m butterfly.
The three-time Olympian holds the African record for the 50m freestyle and the 50m butterfly in the long course, as well as the 50m freestyle and the 50m and 100m butterfly in the short course.
A pioneer of women’s sport in the region, Osman arrives in Abu Dhabi next week as one of the faces of the upcoming FINA World Swimming Championships (25m), which will take place at the Etihad Arena from December 16-21. .
Inspire a region
From an early age, the 26-year-old realized she was swimming for more than herself, as she made history for an entire region with each new step taken in the pool.
“Honestly, I think my main goal is just to inspire people, especially young women, to practice not only swimming but sports in general,” Osman told Arab News in a telephone interview. last week.
“I feel like swimming and sports give you more than just medals and achievements. They offer you a healthy lifestyle. You learn things about yourself like strengths and weaknesses, discipline, and all of these things will eventually help you in your life.
“Our region isn’t much of a fan of women’s swimming, so I personally want to challenge those odds and break the stereotype that women, when they reach a certain age, can’t or can’t play sports. not swim.
“I always want to inspire others to do this and I hope my journey, with its ups and downs, shows that while it is not an easy road, it is worth it.”
Whatever the cost
It has certainly not been an easy road for Osman. La Cairene went to great lengths to make her dreams come true, starting with moving to the United States as a teenager to study and swim at the University of California at Berkeley.
Sharing a Cal Bears roster with people like five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin, Osman thrived during his college years, setting school records, winning NCAA titles and putting Egypt on the world map of the swimming along the way.
His successful college experience, coupled with his historic performances in world competitions, sparked a swimming revolution in his country, as dozens of swimmers decided to follow suit and accept athletic scholarships for top programs. swimming at American universities.
“I think going there, being myself and showing that I could still be an Egyptian girl, even living far from home, that’s what encouraged other Egyptians, men and women, from an early age going to college in the United States because, honestly, it gives you the best of both worlds, ”Osman explained.
“In Egypt, when we reach a certain age, unfortunately we have to choose between sports or studying because it’s so difficult to balance the two. But the best part about America is that it’s all on campus, everything is designed for you, and you have the resources to help you perform at your best in swimming and swimming. in your studies.
“The two most difficult years of my life”
After spending five years training at Berkeley, Osman felt she needed a change and wanted to make the most of the two-year period in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
With the primary goal of improving his 100 butterfly, Osman moved to Blacksburg, Va., To train under the guidance of Spain coach Sergio Lopez. She was warned it would be a difficult transition, leaving behind sunny California and the relationships she established there in favor of training under Lopez in a relatively remote setting, but Osman was ready to do anything. what it took to be ready for the Olympics.
“Mentally, I wasn’t really prepared for what it was going to be difficult outside of swimming,” admitted Osman, who described his time before Tokyo as the “toughest two years” of his swimming life.
The Egyptian explained how the postponement of the Games due to the pandemic hit her hard, and the challenge of having no social life in Virginia that would help her recharge between workouts was not easy .
Traveling to new places and meeting new people at competitions, which she said was the fun thing about being a professional swimmer, was not possible due to the pandemic, and she was mentally exhausted by the time. the postponed Olympics have arrived. A glitch during the cone before the Games didn’t help either.
“The buildup – physical, mental, emotional – means you’re ready to play, you’re literally like a machine ready to explode. Until 2020, everything in my life was on hold and I was only focusing on swimming, ”Osman said.
“I resource myself personally by being social, going out with my friends, having a good dinner. Since there was nothing to do during the two years in Virginia, I felt like I was always out of battery. I wasn’t even mentally recharging myself.
“So I think that was the hardest part. Instead of mentally preparing myself to compete then in 2020 I had to extend it for a year in a place where it was really difficult to be in. First place. And with the pandemic, there were no breaks; I was just stuck in one place.
Back to its roots
The Tokyo Olympics did not go as planned and Osman took a month off when he returned to Cairo in August to recover and reset. It was the longest break she had ever taken from swimming, and it allowed her to reconnect with family and friends.
Instead of returning to the United States, Osman decided that she should stay home after eight years abroad. She trained solo in Cairo, working with Egyptian coach Sherif Habib with some advice from her coaches in the United States.
“I just wanted to be home, especially after two really tough years,” Osman said.
Training in Egypt naturally has its advantages and disadvantages. In addition to being close to his family, Osman enjoys training tailored to his needs as opposed to those of a larger group of swimmers. But her current situation can also sometimes feel like an experience of loneliness.
” It’s the worst. If I stay here, I have to accept the fact that I will be training on my own. Unfortunately there is no one I can train with here, girls or boys, ”she said.
“I am truly honored”
When she got the call from FINA to be named Ambassador for the World Championships in Abu Dhabi, Osman remembered all she brought to the sport and the role she played in bringing life to the world. swimming in the area.
“I am truly honored. It was really cool, especially since it came after Tokyo. It reminded me that what happened in Tokyo doesn’t define your entire career, ”Osman said.
“I have done so much for this sport and so much for Egypt, Africa, the Middle East, this region, and I feel that being an ambassador was just proof that I am much more than that. that happened in Tokyo. “
Rekindle the spark
Osman approaches these championships “without pressure” and is rediscovering her passion for the sport more than a decade after being crowned the junior world champion in the 50m butterfly in Lima, Peru.
“I’m doing this just for myself. I know I can do so much better than what I did in Tokyo so I feel like it’s a way to prove to myself that it was an incident and something went wrong and that it’s not like I’m not a good swimmer anymore. So that’s something that excites me, ”she said.
“I’m taking this year to focus on myself. I just wanna swim for myself. I want to enjoy it again. I want to feel happy that I can swim again.
Osman’s greatest crowns were her medals at the World Championships in Budapest 2017 and Gwangju 2019. On both occasions, she shared the 50 fly podium with Olympic and World Champions Sarah Sjostrom and Ranomi Kromowidjojo and proved that she was among the best on one of the greatest in the sport. steps.
“I feel like 2019 has definitely been more difficult for me. Emotionally, I just felt the pressure of waiting, ”she recalls.
“It was a moment for me just to remind myself that now I’m a part of something bigger than myself. It’s not just me swimming for myself; now I feel like there’s a whole world behind me. In 2019, as happy as I was to collect the medal, it was twice as hard.
Looking ahead, Osman hopes to return to personal bests in swimming as she prepares for next year’s FINA World Long Course Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. She has no plans to retire yet, but she feels like she wants to end her career on a high note.
“I feel like I haven’t swam the best times for a very long time. So I think just making it happen would definitely be an achievement for me. And obviously when I’m having a better time, I watch medals and finals and stuff like that. But I think once you focus on your time, the rest is on its own, ”she concluded.
Farida Osman will swim the 50m and 100m butterfly and freestyle events in Abu Dhabi.