The first time I saw Farida Osman in action, she was 16 years old and was obliterating the field at the 2011 Pan Arab Games in Doha, clinching seven gold medals in the pool and making it look easy in the process.
A decade later, the Egyptian has firmly established herself as the fastest female swimmer in Africa and the Arab world and is the only athlete from her nation to ever make the podium at the FINA World Swimming Championships, snagging bronze in both 2017 and 2019 in the 50m butterfly.
The three-time Olympian holds the African record in the 50m freestyle and 50m butterfly in long course, as well as the 50m freestyle and 50m and 100m butterfly in short course.
A trailblazer for women’s sports in the region, Osman arrives in Abu Dhabi next week as one of the faces of the upcoming FINA World Swimming Championships (25m), set to take place at Etihad Arena from Dec. 16-21.
Inspiring a region
From an early age, the 26-year-old realized she was swimming for more than just herself, as she made history for an entire region with every new milestone she hit in the pool.
“Honestly, I think my main purpose is just to inspire people, especially women at a young age, to pursue not only swimming but sports in general,” Osman told Arab News in a phone interview last week.
“I feel like swimming and sports give you so much more than just medals and achievements. They give you a healthy lifestyle. You learn stuff about yourself like strengths and weaknesses, discipline, and all these things will help you eventually in your life.
“Our region isn’t really big on swimming for females, so I personally want to defy those odds and break the stereotype that says that women, when they reach a certain age, cannot do sports or cannot swim.
“I want to always inspire others to do that and hopefully my journey, with its ups and downs, will show that while it’s not an easy road, it’s worth it.”
Whatever it takes
It certainly has not been an easy road for Osman. The Cairene went to great lengths to fulfill her dreams, starting with her move to the US as a teenager to study and swim at the University of California, Berkeley.
Sharing a Cal Bears roster with the likes of five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin, Osman thrived during her university years, setting school records, clinching NCAA titles and putting Egypt on the world swimming map along the way.
Her successful college experience, coupled with her history-making performances at global meets, sparked a swimming revolution back home, as scores of swimmers decided to follow suit and accept athletic scholarships for top swimming programs at universities in the US.
“I think just by going there, being myself and showing that I could still be an Egyptian girl even living away from home is what encouraged other Egyptians, men and women, from a young age to go to the US for university because, honestly, it does give you the best of both worlds,” explained Osman.
“In Egypt, when we reach a certain age, unfortunately, we have to choose either sports or academics because it’s so hard to balance both. But the best thing in the US is that everything is on campus, everything is tailored toward you, and you have the resources to help you to perform your best in both swimming and academics.”
‘Toughest two years of my life’
After spending five years training at Berkeley, Osman felt like she needed a change and wanted to make the most out of the two-year period in the build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
With the main goal of improving her 100 fly, Osman moved to Blacksburg, Virginia to train under Spanish coach Sergio Lopez. She was warned it would be a difficult transition, leaving sunny California behind and the relationships she built there in favor of training under Lopez in a relatively remote setting, but Osman was willing to do whatever it took to be ready for the Olympic Games.
“Mentally, I wasn’t really prepared for how challenging it was going to be outside of swimming,” admitted Osman, who described her time ahead of Tokyo as the “toughest two years” of her life in swimming.
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 training was not easy to navigate.
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 because of the pandemic, and she was mentally drained by the time the postponed Olympics came along. A glitch during the taper before the Games also did not help.
“The build-up — physical, mental, emotional — means that you’re ready to perform, you’re literally like a machine ready to explode. Up to 2020, everything in my life was on hold and I was just focusing on swimming,” said Osman.
“I personally recharge from being social, going out with my friends, having a nice dinner. Because there was nothing to do during the two years in Virginia, I felt like I was always on low battery. I wasn’t even mentally recharging.
“So, I think that was the hardest part. Instead of mentally preparing to compete then, in 2020, I had to extend it for another year in a location that was really hard to be at in the first place. And with the pandemic, there were no breaks; I was just stuck in one place.”
Returning to her roots
The Tokyo Olympics did not go according to plan, and Osman took a month off upon returning 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 US, Osman decided she needed to stay at home after eight years of living abroad. She has been training solo in Cairo, working with Egyptian coach Sherif Habib with some consultation from her coaches in the US.
“I just wanted to be home, especially after a really hard two years,” said Osman.
Training in Egypt naturally has its pros and cons. Besides being close to family, Osman is benefitting from having practices that are tailored to her needs as opposed to those of a larger group of swimmers. But her current situation can also feel like a lonely experience at times.
“That’s the worst part. If I stay here, I have to be okay with the fact that I’m going to train alone. Sadly, there isn’t anyone I can actually train with here, girls or boys,” she said.
‘I’m really honored’
When she got the call from FINA about being named an ambassador for the World Championships in Abu Dhabi, Osman was reminded of how much she has given the sport and the role she has played in vitalizing swimming in the region.
“I’m really honored. It was really nice, especially given that it came after Tokyo. It reminded me that what happened in Tokyo does not define your whole career,” said Osman.
“I’ve done so much for this sport and so much for Egypt, Africa, the Middle East, this region, and I feel like being an ambassador was just proof that I’m so much more than what happened in Tokyo.”
Reigniting the spark
Osman is approaching these championships “pressure-free” and is on a journey to rediscover her passion for the sport more than a decade after she was crowned a junior world champion in the 50m butterfly in Lima, Peru.
“I’m just doing this for myself. I know I can do so much better than what I did in Tokyo, so I feel like this is a way to prove to myself that it was a mishap and something just went wrong and it’s not like I’m no longer a good swimmer. So, this is something that I’m excited about,” she said.
“I’m taking this year to just focus on myself. I want to just swim for myself. I want to enjoy it again. I want to feel happy that I’m swimming again.”
Osman’s biggest crowning moments were her World Championship medals 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 she belonged among the very best on one of the sport’s grandest stages.
“I feel like 2019 was definitely harder for me. Emotionally, I just felt the pressure of the expectation,” she recalled.
“It was a moment for me just to remember that now I’ve become 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 get the medal again, it was twice as hard.”
Looking ahead, Osman is hoping to get back to swimming personal best times as she builds toward next year’s long course FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. She is not contemplating retirement just yet but feels like she wants to end her career on a high.
“I feel like I haven’t swum best times in a really long time. So, I think just getting there would definitely be an achievement for me. And obviously, when I go a best time, I’m looking at medals and finals and stuff like that. But I think once you focus on your time, the rest just takes care of itself,” she concluded.
Farida Osman will be swimming the 50m and 100m butterfly and freestyle events in Abu Dhabi.