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Farida Osman: A pioneer in Egyptian swimming

by ZwemZa on February 25th, 2015
Farida Osman (Cal Bears)

Farida Osman (Cal Bears)

Just over four years ago, as the calendar turned to 2011, Farida Osman was beginning to make a name for herself in the pool. Not only was she gaining notice for her world-class times in the sprint freestyle and butterfly, but as a resident of Cairo, she was being recognized as a pioneer in the sport as a woman in Egypt.

So strong was Osman’s rise that not even the Egyptian Revolution that began in late January 2011 could derail her ascent. Despite the fact that the events that caused a change in government leadership frightened her coaches out of the country, Osman persevered, often alone, and now she stands as an Egyptian and African record-holder as well as one of the young stars on the No. 1-ranked Cal women’s swimming & diving team.

Born in Indianapolis while her parents were attending dental school in Indiana, Osman and her family returned to Cairo not long after her birth. By the time she was six, Osman had found her place in the pool.

“I started to fall in love with swimming right from the beginning,” Osman said. “Just being in the water makes me feel really good.”

Osman quickly progressed past the level of expertise held by Egyptian coaches, and soon was taught by coaches from such locales as Russia, Italy and Ukraine. When she turned 12, Osman entered her first international competition, swimming at the African Games in Algeria. One of the youngest in the field, she found herself competing against foes often more than 10 years older. Still, Osman placed an impressive fourth in the 50-meter butterfly.

The political unrest in Egypt, though, began to take a toll as international coaches returned to the safety of their home countries. “I honestly changed coaches every four months at least,” Osman recalled. “It was not stable at all.”

Seemingly against the odds, Osman continued to improve and by 2012 had found a mentor in Volodymyr Hutsu from Ukraine. As the London Olympics approached, Osman earned qualifying times and practiced as if she would be heading to the Games. But the dream suddenly seemed to end when she learned the quota for swimmers had been filled. As a result, Osman backed off her training and went with her Plan B. “I was with my family and doing low-key stuff without high performance practices,” she said.

Then, only about a month before the Olympics, word arrived from the Egyptian Federation that a spot had opened up. Osman kicked into high gear and chose the 50-meter free as her event because she believed it would be the easiest to train for on such short notice. With Hutsu back in Ukraine, Osman had to work out by herself.

“He sent me practices through emails, but I had to practice alone,” Osman said. “I didn’t have anyone to coach me. So, I was doing this for the month before the Olympics. I just told myself I’m going to go. It’s the Olympics and I’m not going to miss such an experience.”

In London, Osman comprised a team of one – the only female Olympic swimmer from Egypt. One male swimmer also accompanied her, and together they remained in London throughout the Games to take in the total atmosphere. In the pool, Osman placed 41st out of 73 racers in the 50-meter free.

A year later Osman found herself in more company at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona with 10 swimmers on the Egyptian roster. “I know it’s not a big community, but there are a lot of good swimmers that are starting to make progress.” Osman said.

At the meet, Osman became the first Egyptian ever to reach a World Championship final when she finished seventh in the 50-meter fly.

By that time, Osman had signed her letter of intent to attend Cal. Osman’s older brother, Ahmed, graduated from Cal with a degree in industrial engineering in May 2013 and had told her all about the school. Osman began emailing coaches Teri McKeever and Kristen Cunnane to express her interest in joining the Bears and even had the chance to meet McKeever at the Olympics in London.

Being on a highly competitive team was a new experience for Osman. She had to make adjustments and get used to swimming alongside elite competitors daily. By the end of her freshman year, Osman placed eighth in the 100-yard fly at the 2014 NCAA Championships and was a member of the top-three 200 and 400 free relays at nationals.

“During the fall semester, it was so hard,” Osman said. “I needed time to adapt to the environment – new system, new coach, new team, new everything. Over time, it got better and I got more comfortable.

“It’s so different from back home,” Osman added. “It was a hard decision to make, but I wanted to have this change in my life. I didn’t have any stability back home. It’s hard, but I know it’s worth it to come here.”

This year, Osman ranks among the top 10 in the NCAA in both the 100-yard free and 100-yard fly. At an Arena Pro Swim Series event in January in Austin, Texas, she covered the 50-meter free in 24.92, which broke the African record and currently ranks fifth in the world. Osman also owns the African record in the 50-meter fly.

With the Pac-12 Championships coming up later this week in Federal Way, Washington, Osman hopes to play a big role in helping Cal defend its conference title. The meet will last Wednesday through Saturday and will be televised on next-day delay by the Pac-12 Networks.

“I’m so excited to race,” Osman said. “Throughout the year, everyone has been swimming and competing really well. I’ve already gotten the qualifying times for NCAA’s, so I’m not worried about that. I’m excited to be with the team and swim fast.”

Herb Benenson, Cal Athletic Communications

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