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.
His compatriot Farida Osman had won Egypt its first ever medal at a World Championship when she topped the podium in the 50m butterfly at Junior Worlds in Lima back in 2011, but no Egyptian swimmer had ever grabbed an Olympic medal before Akram stole the show in Nanjing last Thursday.
The 17-year-old Cairo native shaved eight seconds off his personal best to clock 7:54.29 in the 800m freestyle event and become a Youth Olympic champion.
“That feeling, winning a medal, is just huge, you can’t describe it,” Akram told Sport360 of his history-making feat.
“You have no idea how much effort I put in, it was exhausting juggling practice and exams. I finished exams on July 1st and I was training just one workout per day until that point, which was inadequate of course.
“When I was done with exams in the beginning of July, it was Ramadan. I couldn’t fast to be honest because I had to train twice a day to get in shape as quickly as possible.”
Akram came up on everyone’s radar when he competed at the World Junior Championships in Dubai 12 months ago and placed fifth in the 800m with a time of 8:02.65, and eighth in the 1500m, clocking 15:24.00. The young Egyptian had said at the time that his main target was to medal at the Youth Olympics this year and he delivered on his promise in emphatic fashion.
But the road to the top of the Youth Olympics podium was not a smooth one as he spent the last month prior to the Games commuting from opposite ends of Cairo to train in different locations twice a day.
“There was no way I was going to let a medal slip away this time,” he said in a phone interview from China.
“During Ramadan I would train at 9:00 in the morning, alone, at the Tersana (Arsenal) Club and at night from 21:00 until midnight with the national team at the Cairo Stadium (in Nasr City).
“You have no idea how boring and tough it is to swim and train by yourself. But my coach, Sherif Habib, used to encourage me constantly and tell me ‘it’s okay, you have to put in this effort so we can reach our goals because once we get there we’ll have reason to celebrate and you’ll have rewritten history for Egyptian sport’.
It’s been a few days since Akram’s historic triumph and he says it has all finally sunk in.
The congratulations have poured in from all corners of the earth, including a message from the Minister of Sport in Egypt, and while he says he understands “100 per cent” the magnitude of his accomplishment, he insists it has only whet his appetite for more.
“I want to be the greatest in what I do. I don’t ever say I can’t do anything. I put a target and I work for it. It doesn’t matter how hard my dream is, in the end I must reach it,” said the Cairene teenager.
Of all the messages and greetings Akram has received, one particularly stands out – it is the call he got from his mother, whom he considers his No1 supporter.
“She worked so hard with me. She’s the one supporting me all the time and wants me to be the best in everything. My father lives abroad so my mother is the one who is with me all the time and does everything for me. She and my sister are everything to me,” he says.
As they say, there’s no rest for the weary and Akram is already looking ahead to his next meet. He will compete in the African Championships next month and could potentially participate in the World Short Course Championships in Doha this December.
Akram is heading to college in the United States this January after being recruited by the University of South Carolina and will join them in the Spring semester, having forgone the Fall to travel to the Youth Olympics – a choice which has ultimately proven to be the right one.
“They are one of the best universities in the States. I want to be the best swimmer in the history of college swimming. I want to win in the NCAA Championships next year,” he says.
Hungarian superstar Katinka Hosszu continued her dominance in the pool with another commanding performance in the European Championships last week, and is expected to again leave her competitors in her wake when at the FINA/MASTBANK World Cup in Dubai.
Hosszu has established herself as the iron lady of world swimming and is in great form, taking three golds in the 200m and 400m individual medley (IM) and 100m backstroke, silver in the 200m freestyle and bronze in the 200m butterfly at the Europeans in Berlin.
The 25-year-old's win in the 200m IM was her third successive win in the event, and her time put her at the top of the world rankings for 2014. Her schedule, the busiest of any of the competitors in the series, often requires her to run from the finish of one race to the marshalling point of the next.
But Hosszu’s climb to the top has not all been easy, and while she is now a regular visitor to the top of the podium she has had her share of ups and downs in her career.
Like many who reach the pinnacle of their sport, staying at the top seems to be harder than getting there. After her first world title in 2009 she struggled for some time, failing to win medals in the next three major meets, the 2010 short course World Championships in Dubai, the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai and the 2012 London Olympics.
The disappointments have shaped her career though, with Hosszu working on her mental strength as well as her physical, and she is now arguably the best individual medley swimmer in the world.
She credits these disappointments with teaching her how to be successful.
“I think I may have learned just as much, if not more, from the failures of my career than the successes I have had," said Hosszu.
“I feel like the mental aspects of racing are much more important than many people think. I have a ton of first-hand experience in this field. If I was not completely focused and ready mentally for a race, it affected the results more than when I was just physically tired but mentally ready to compete.”
2014 is shaping up as another great year, with her successes in Berlin last week setting her up for a tilt at her third Swimming World Cup title when competition commences this week.
The newly crowned Commonwealth and European men’s 200m freestyle champions will go head to head in Dubai next week at the FINA/MASTBANK Swimming World Cup which will be held at the Hamdan Sports Complex this weekend.
The UAE’s own local star Velimir Stjepanovic, who represents Serbia, performed brilliantly at the European Championships in Berlin this week, winning the 200m and 400m freestyle.
Stjepanovic took the lead from the outset in the 400m freestyle, then held on to be the first Serbian to ever win the 400m crown in 3:45.66, ahead of Andrea D’Arrgio of Italy 3:46.91 and Great Britain’s Jay Lelliot in 3:47.50.
Reflecting on his efforts in Berlin, Stjepanovic said: “I went out really fast but that’s the way I usually race. At the final 50m I saw the Italian coming but I told myself that there were only a couple of meters left so I had to give the maximum.”
He then added the 200m title in similar style, leading from the start.
The Serb was nearly caught by defending champion Paul Biedermann of Germany in the final lap but powered home to touch first in 1:47.78, just ahead of Biedermann who clocked 1:47.80 and failed in his bid to win his fourth straight 200m title. Olympic and world champion Yannick Agnel of France was third.
Stjepanovic’s time in the 200m ranks him fifth in the world this year, but he will face some stiff competition in Dubai when he comes up against the new Commonwealth and Pan Pacific champion Thomas Fraser-Holmes of Australia.
Fraser-Holmes took gold in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in July in 1.45.08, a time which put him at the top of the 200m world rankings. He reaffirmed his position as the world number 1 when he stormed home in the last lap to win gold at the Pan Pacific Championships at the Gold Coast, Australia this week.
After winning gold in Glasgow Fraser-Holmes had the difficult task of staying in prime form and performing in front of the home crowd.
“I was talking to my coach before the race Denis (Cotterell) and he said ‘do whatever it takes to win’,” said Fraser-Holmes. “He said it’s going to come down to the last eight strokes and I think I didn’t breathe the last seven strokes so I’m pretty thankful he told me that and thankful for my long arms. I’m really proud of the last month.
"It’s just a really good feeling right now. It sets me up great (for the future). I’m not getting too ahead of myself at all, it’s just more exciting. I can get back into training and really work on my skills and stroke as well.”
The 200m and 400m are now shaping up as the most hotly contested events on the program in next week’s Swimming World Cup, with Stjepanovic and Fraser-Holmes up against the three swimmers who dominated the events last year, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, Australia’s Bobby Hurley and Poland’s Pawel Kozeniowski, guaranteeing some thrilling racing.