Into Her Own: Farida Osman’s journey from the Arab Spring to the international stage

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

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arida Osman pressed her hand against the concrete wall of the pool, stealing a moment to  catch her breath.

It was the spring of 2011, and Osman had just finished another drill alone. She had been training by herself for months by the time she finished her workout that night in downtown Cairo. Cutting back and forth across the length of the Olympic-sized facility — seven empty lanes by her side — she had stayed in the pool well after everyone else had gone home, the nearby Nile River now running black under the city lights.

Of course, she wasn’t completely alone. On the sidelines, she was joined by Ukrainian coach Volodymyr Hutsu, who would time Osman during her workouts but wasn’t able to offer her much more direction than the few numbers and stroke names he had translated before practice. Yet, while Hutsu couldn’t speak English or Arabic with Osman, her latest coach did possess the one thing she needed most at the time.

He was willing to stay.

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wo months earlier, Osman and her family had pushed an overflowing shopping cart through the aisles of their local grocery store.

A curfew of 6 p.m. had recently been imposed throughout Cairo after massive demonstrations that began in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011. Protesting a wide range of social and political matters, most of the demonstrators were calling for an end to the 30-year presidency of Hosni Mubarak, who had since issued security measures to subdue the thousands-strong crowds. Unsure of whether supermarkets would be open in the coming days, Osman and her family were stocking up.

“It was just like, ‘Get everything! Get everything!’ ” Osman says. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Osman mentions that trip to the grocery store now with a hint of laughter — her family hadn’t ended up needing most of the supplies they had hurriedly pulled from the shelves that day. But at the time, the revolution was quickly transforming the fabric of her everyday life.

School was soon canceled, and Osman’s usually vibrant, congested neighborhood in Cairo grew silent. From the empty tables at the sushi restaurant she had frequented Fridays with her friends and family to the vacant streets, the landscape she saw outside her apartment building barely looked like the bustling metropolis she had known growing up.

“Streets were empty for the first time ever,” Osman says. “There was no traffic, and you could be somewhere in like five minutes because there was just no one on the streets, because no one knew what we were supposed to do.”

For Osman, the ensuing days brought with them feelings of uncertainty and curiosity about the broad changes happening outside her walls. Internet and phone services were cut, and the shift from busy days to restless hours was dramatic. To fill the time, she took to avidly following the news, watching from her living room as vast political upheaval spread like wildfire.

After the peak of the violence had waned, Osman and her family decided to see it all for themselves. Traveling from their apartment building to Tahrir Square, Osman; her brother, Ahmed; and her parents walked among the protesters to better understand the historic moment they were witnessing. Red, white and black colored everything from the demonstrators’ clothing to the flags in their hands — Osman sensed the excitement permeating the space.

“It was like the first time we actually wanted change and it actually happened,” Osman says. “We were all just talking about how proud we were to see Egyptians reuniting and asking for something. It was interesting to see their perseverance and how they wouldn’t leave until they get what they want.”

The protesters would have their primary demand met Feb. 11, 2011, when it was announced that Mubarak would be stepping down.

Farida Osman 3

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Celebrations filled Tahrir Square, and in the following days, relative stability began to return to the city. But as a swimmer training for several international meets, Osman would feel the revolution affect her training schedule beyond just the several days of practice she had missed.

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earing the political instability in Cairo, Osman’s previous coach decided to head back to the United States soon after the protests began. This meant that with the FINA Junior World Championships, the All-Africa Games and the Pan Arab Games all just months away, Osman would have to figure out how to begin preparing on her own.

Unfortunately for Osman, this wasn’t the first time a coach had left. Citing reasons ranging from homesickness to conflicts with the club administration, foreign coaches would typically stay in Cairo for only a year or two, initially attracted by the higher pay her club offered but ultimately unsatisfied with the thin framework of Egyptian swimming.

The high turnover rate made it difficult for Osman to train consistently for her sport’s most prestigious stages. Having risen quickly through Cairo’s club system and earning a spot on her national team at the age of 12, Osman had long held the goal of putting Egypt on the map for swimming. But despite the promise she showed, Osman gradually discovered that developing her talent was going to be harder for her than for swimmers in countries with more advanced swimming programs.

Even with these obstacles, she reminded herself of the goal she had made long ago while watching podium after podium filled with swimmers shadowed by foreign flags.

“I used to watch the Olympics and Worlds on TV all the time, and I never saw Egypt, even in a final or a semifinal,” Osman says. “I want Egypt to be part of this, and this is why I decided that I need to do this.”

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ith Osman’s ambitions in mind, her club began the familiar process of searching for a replacement coach. But this time, it would need to find one willing to come shortly after the height of a revolution.

It took nearly a month to find a coach, and when Hutsu was finally signed in March 2011, even Osman struggled to understand why he had taken the job. Newly arrived from Ukraine and speaking only a handful of words in English and no Arabic, the former Ukrainian National Team coach was dealt the task of guiding Osman through her most critical year of international competition — all without a way of communicating with his new pupil.

Hutsu often had to draw up drills on a whiteboard, and any adjustments during practice had to be communicated through physical gestures and translated through Hutsu’s daughter. This took up valuable time during practice, and even then, some things would still slip through the cracks.

“One day, he wanted to correct something in my technique, and then he just couldn’t,” Osman says. “He had to just get me out of the water and show me because he couldn’t actually tell me.”

Osman, however, knew that Hutsu had the expertise she needed to succeed at the level she wanted and tried to focus on improving her times without worrying too much about the difficulties she experienced when communicating with her coach. With the help of the Google Translate app and a gradual improvement in Hutsu’s English, the two found a way to work through the language barrier and settle into a system of rigorous training.

In the following months, it became clear that the system was working.

At the FINA Junior World Championships that year, Osman stunned the audience in Lima, Peru, by beating out favorites such as Canada’s Chantal Van Landeghem to win first place in the 50-meter butterfly, making her the first Egyptian to win gold in the event. As she stood up on the podium she had waited so long to be on, Osman listened to the Egyptian national anthem while her friends and family watched proudly from the stands.

Meanwhile, people began to wonder who she was.

“(Hutsu) had the Russian coaches from the Russian team coming up to him, and he used to talk with them, and they would tell him how amazing Farida is,” says Osman’s mother, Randa Elsalawy. “And he would tell them how many times she trains.”

Osman would soon repeat her success with another first-place performance in the 50-meter butterfly, this time in the 2011 All-Africa Games. Then, at the Pan Arab Games in Qatar in December, she came home with an astonishing seven gold medals. This success led Osman to start eyeing something that hadn’t necessarily been on her radar — the 2012 London Olympics.

Osman was placed on reserve for the 50-meter freestyle, meaning she needed to practice as if she were going to the Olympics but without the guarantee that she would be heading to London. After training strenuously for months, she finally got word a little more than a month before the games began: She wouldn’t be going.

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evastated, Osman decided to take some time off and visit her brother in New York, who had an internship there at the time. Yet, as she visited Times Square and went sight seeing around the city, all of the busy activity carried a bittersweet tone. She couldn’t help but think of how different her days were than they had been just a few weeks ago, when the hope of representing her country on the world’s biggest stage was still a possibility.

Then her brother got a call to his apartment at 6 a.m.

“It’s saying, ‘You need to come back to Egypt. We’re leaving to the Olympics in three days,’ ” Osman says.

Farida Osman 2

Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

The next day, Osman hopped on a plane to begin the impossible task of preparing for her event. But using emailed drill sets from Hutsu — who had flown back to Ukraine on vacation — and having gone two weeks without practice, Osman wasn’t able to perform her best at the games, finishing 41st in heats. Nonetheless, her dream of advancing swimming for her country was finally set in motion. As Osman stepped onto a starting block at the London Aquatics Center, Egypt had a face.

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ust more than a month ago, Osman was getting off a plane after 30 hours of travel from the Republic of the Congo.

She was coming back from her third All-Africa Games, where she had just earned five gold medals and helped Egyptian swimming finish second in medal count, representing an important transition for her country. This past All-Africa Games, Egypt took home 41 medals in swimming. In Osman’s second games in 2011, her country had claimed just two.

“For the past five to six years, we have started to have a big team — a lot of people are swimming, and a lot of people are joining competitions nationally and internationally,” Osman says. “We’ve started to get better, more noticeable by other countries.”

When Osman goes home now, and often when she meets Egyptians in the United States, they know her name. Some people will want to meet her, and sometimes kids will ask for a picture. But more important to Osman than the recognition is the knowledge that many of these kids are swimmers themselves, and she has a feeling they won’t be swimming alone.

Contact Dani Jo Coony at [email protected].