Egyptian duo Farida Osman and Ahmed Akram will both be chasing history at the Rio 2016 Games this summer as they attempt to become the first swimmers from their country to win Olympic medals.
The pair have been obliterating their competition in the Arab Swimming Championships that will conclude in Dubai at the Hamdan Sports Complex (HSC) and have legitimate chances of making the podium in Rio this August.
They’ve been leading a major swimming revolution in Egypt and are amongst five swimmers who have qualified for the 2016 Olympics with A-standard times – an unprecedented tally for the North African nation in the sport. There are 14 more Egyptians who have swum B-standard times and will have to wait until July to find out if they’ve been awarded places at the Games.
Egypt are on course towards defending their Arab Championships title as they head into Thursday’s final day at the top of the medals table.
Osman is a former junior world champion and World Aquatics Championships finalist, who last February swam the second-fastest 50 yard freestyle in history while competing for the University of California, Berkeley.
She captured her third individual gold medal at the Arab Championships on Wednesday, clocking 26.52 to touch the wall more than two seconds faster than second-placed Talita Baqlah of Jordan.
The 21-year-old was equally untouchable in the 50m freestyle and 100m butterfly.
Osman’s feats this week are all the more remarkable considering she only arrived from the United States last Sunday after helping the Cal Bears secure third place in the NCAA Championship.
“Honestly right now I’m exhausted, just traveling around, from the US, and competing the next day (here in Dubai) was really hard but I’m really happy to be here and be with my team-mates. I’m really proud to represent Egypt and compete with my team-mates,” Osman told Sport360 at the HSC.
Osman has already made history more than once, becoming the first Egyptian to make a World Championship final and the first to win gold at a World Junior Championship.
Egypt's Ahmed Akram aiming to become Egypt's first The Olympic Games gold medallist swimmer.Posted by Sport 360 on Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Last year, with Missy Franklin as a team-mate at her university, Osman helped the Cal Bears win the NCAAs.
This year, with Franklin ditching her amateur status and turning professional, Osman had more pressure on her shoulders but she says she was proud of the timings she posted, particularly that historic 50 yard free.
“Honestly before I swam I didn’t even think about that, I just wanted to go my best time and see how it goes and I’m just really happy that it was the second fastest ever,” she says.
With Rio just four months away, Osman’s attention will now shift to her Olympic dream. She’s aware that she carries the hopes of an entire nation behind her but is choosing to stay calm.
“Right now I’m not thinking about that, I’m trying just to motivate myself and do my best in practice and what’s going to happen is going to happen. I just want everyone to know that I’m doing my best and if it doesn’t come then it’s not in my hands,” said Osman.
“Getting a medal would mean the world to me. But my goal right now is just to go top eight. Because you know how fast swimmers are and the competition is really high so this is my goal right now.”
Also chasing history is Akram, who won 800m freestyle gold at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing in 2014.
Akram, who studies at University of South Carolina, also had a stellar NCAAs, where he took silver in the freestyle mile.
The 19-year-old, who is also battling jetlag but already has two golds and one silver in Dubai this week, placed fourth in the 1500m at the World Aquatic Championships in Kazan last year.
He says he “can’t wait” for Rio and has his eyes firmly set on the podium.
“I want to win a medal, so I’ll do my best, I’ll train hard. I’m going to stay in the US until May, then I’ll go back to Egypt and then we have a camp in Greece and I’ll try to do my best to be on that podium,” said Akram.
Egypt’s Ahmed Akram made history at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing when he claimed gold in the 800m freestyle to become the first swimmer from his country to win a medal at an Olympic event.
After a superb NCAA Championship the University of South Carolina student has now set his sights firmly on Olympic gold at Rio 2016.
“That was an outstanding season for me,” said the Cairo native. “It gives me a lot of confidence ahead of the Olympics. In the 1500 I am going to have to be so fast to make the finals in the afternoon.”
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New UAE swimming national team coach, Eetu Karvonen, admits that Olympic qualification is a “long shot” for the Emirati swimmers competing at the ongoing Arab Championships in Dubai, but said “everything is possible”.
Karvonen, a multiple-time Finland national champion swimmer, took the reins of the team three months ago and is still adapting to the swim culture in the Emirates.
The 29-year-old was an assistant coach at Grand Canyon University in the United States, where he got a taste of Arab swimming through Egypt’s El Kamash brothers, who attended his programme.
“I started looking for something else to do and I’ve always thought about Arab swimming, or basically places where the swimming culture is not as accepted as in other places like in the USA. So, I generally sent out my resume. It was kind of the right time, they needed a coach and I accepted,” Karvonen said at the Hamdan Sports Complex (HSC).
“I’m adapting to the swimming culture here which is very different from anywhere else in the world.”
Asked what was the trickiest thing he’s had to adapt to so far, he added: “Probably schedules. I am originally from Finland, where it is very authority-led. So, if somebody says something, that’s how it is. Also in the US universities, because they’re paying for swimmers to be there, everything is rule-based.
“But here, you have to be a little more open. The swimmers, they will train, but you can’t be too strict about that stuff.”
The Arab Championships, which serves as a qualifying event for the Rio 2016 Olympics, kicked off on Monday at the HSC with a few Emiratis in the mix.
Khaled Al Dabbous, who is currently attending Tampa University in the US, placed fourth in the 50m freestyle final, with his timing of 23.37 falling short of the 23.05 B-standard time required for the Olympics.
“It’s a long shot,” Karvonen concedes when asked about Olympic qualification.
“But everything is possible, as long as they don’t get too nervous about it.
“But as a general for the team, our goal is to keep getting better. If we can break as many personal bests as possible then I would assume then we’d be higher than last time (in the competition).”
UAE’s Yaaqoub Al Saadi was sixth in the 200m backstroke, clocking 2:14.03, over eight seconds behind gold medallist Ahmed Wahby of Egypt.
Egyptian star and former world junior champion, Farida Osman, opened her account with gold in the 50m freestyle, with a 25.60 swim.