The Egyptian Butterfly
Spectacular performances and record breaking have never seemed easier. The Egyptian pride, Farida Osman, shows us how it’s done as she continues to amaze us with her undivided devotion and drive to keep on ascending her territory of success. We met the award-winning champion, and she spared a moment of her busy schedule to talk to us about the beginning of her journey, and how she climbed to the top in such little time.
How did all this begin? When was the spark of swimming ignited within you?
My parents decided that they wanted my brother and I to gain swimming as a soft skill, so that we wouldn’t drown while in the sea during vacations. In the beginning, it started as just learning how to swim, but then trainers kept nagging my parents about making me participate in age group swimming. They saw potential in me, and wanted me to take part in championships. I honestly fell in love with the sport because of the sense of competition. We all come in at the finish line with second-long differences, especially in championships, and it’s so exhilarating so I decided to join the team. I paused for some time and joined synchronised swimming. I was getting a little bored with swimming trainings, and water ballet was so different – what with the makeup, music and dancing. It was very fun for a change, but I still felt that I liked the sense of competition in swimming much more. So I switched back to swimming and participated in my first regional competition when I was 11. I took back home four gold medals alongside a ‘Best Swimmer’ trophy. It was my first championship. I had no idea who my competitors were, who’s good and who’s not, so you just get in there and see whatever’s going to happen. I joined the national team when I was 12, and I have been taking part in championships nonstop since then.
You earned your first ‘Best Swimmer’ trophy at the age of 11, representing Egypt at the 11th Pan Arab Games in 2007 at just 12 years of age. How did it feel being so young yet achieving so much?
When you’re that young, you don’t really think about it that way. You just go with the flow. I never really started grasping what it was until I started growing up. I was only 11 and in love with the sense of competition and the sport itself. I wasn’t really paying attention to the pressure, it was more about the fun. I didn’t realise how big my achievement was until I matured. It was just for fun in the beginning.
When you were 13, you swam for the ‘Bear Swimming Team’ in Berkeley. Have you ever thought of swimming for the U.S.A instead of Egypt?
The ‘Bear Swimming Team’ is really just a club. My parents decided to take me and my brother there to see how they train and how they deal with competitions. It wasn’t anything serious, we just wanted to know what they do, and what they go through. It was like an experience; we were still very young and did not know what we were good at. I also loved that in America, they have a team spirit. It’s more about the team aspect in the U.S than here in Egypt. Even though swimming is an individual sport, in America they give you enormous support, and I loved that. This is what attracted me to go to the U.S for college.
Your true passion was synchronised swimming. Why didn’t you pursue a career in that instead?
As much as I love swimming, I hated training. You just do the exact same thing and there’s nothing really exciting. The only exciting thing is the championship part. I figured why not try something else? Especially because a lot of people that I know switched from swimming to synchronised swimming, so I wanted to see how it’ll go. I really liked it, but I felt that there’s no end goal. At the end of the day, your performance is based on judging. It’s very political, and it has you wondering how much you can actually improve. What I love about swimming is that once you touch the wall, your name appears; no one can change your performance based on what they think or how they feel about you. I love that the results appear on the spot, there’s no room for judging. That’s why I switched back to it.
You had several major achievements. Which championship affected your career the most and why?
My first big international competition in 2011. It was the FINA World Junior Swimming Championships in Lima, Peru. I participated in the 50m-butterfly race and earned the gold medal. I also broke the record of the championship. This particular championship was going to be the determining factor for me – whether I should continue or quit. I was 17 years old then, it was during the revolution and no one was even interested in sports, so I felt like, “Why am I going through all of this alone with no one acknowledging what I’m doing?” It was also during the summer, so all my friends were travelling and going out while I had to stay in and train. I told myself that since I was committed to taking part in this championship, I should participate and see how my performance turns out. It was go big or go home for me. I ended up doing really well, and it was the very first time for an Egyptian to medal in a World Junior Swimming Championship. After the achievement, you forget all about the training and the exhaustion, so it was the leading factor for me on an international stage.
When you were 17, you were initially put on the waiting list for the Egyptian Olympic Team, and just days before the 2012 Olympics, you received your invitation. Do you remember how that felt?
Olympic qualifications are extremely difficult when it comes to swimming. There’s an A-cut and a B-cut. If you get an A-cut, then you automatically go. I was on the B-cut and it’s literally all about waiting. It’s like a quota: they take all the A, and if there’s room for anyone from their B counterparts, they start adding them. It depends on the races as well, and I had no idea when my race was going to turn up. It was a waiting process, and the Egyptian Federation had already told me that I was not going. I was very upset because I trained so hard for it, but I came around that everything happens for a reason. It was my first time to have the summer all to myself as well, so my family and I decided to visit my brother in New York. We decided that we were going to pack, get there and just enjoy our summer. I spent three weeks without swimming and I ate everything I wanted to. I was having the time of my life. Then one day, at 6:00 a.m., the Egyptian Federation called my father and said, “Farida is in! She’s in the Olympics and she needs to come back to Cairo right now.” I thought to myself, “Screw training, I’m only going for the experience.” On your very first Olympics event, you mainly go for the representation; you don’t necessarily have to perform. Even my trainer went back to his hometown, Ukraine, for the summer. I had to go back to Egypt alone – there were no trainers. I was training myself two weeks before the Olympics! I wanted to catch up, and at least show off a good performance. I travelled and participated in the 50m-freestyle race. Of course, my performance was not so great as it was literally my first one. I also hadn’t been training for the several previous weeks, so I just went for the experience. I was 17 in the Olympic Village, trying to look for celebrities and people that I know. It was such a fun experience.
In 2017, the Association Of National Olympic Committees named you the ‘Best Female Athlete from Africa.’ How did you feel after that specific title?
Getting recognised is a feeling that every athlete should feel. It’s not the best feeling in the world when you work really hard, and yet no one acknowledges your achievements. It’s an incredible, emotional feeling that everything you did was worth it. This recognition came right after my bronze medal, which was the first time for an Egyptian to achieve a medal in the World Championship. It was a push for me that I was on the international stage for the senior level now, not the junior level.
What other hobbies do you enjoy doing?
I really enjoy shopping! Whenever I’m down or upset, I usually go shopping. Not just because it makes me feel better, but even if I feel bored, I just go shopping. I know that it’s not really a hobby, but it’s something that I love doing. I also love watching Netflix all the time! Other than that, I don’t really have the time to pursue an actual hobby.
Do you believe that you already achieved everything you wanted to?
No, my biggest goal is a medal in the Olympics, but I don’t want to make any promises. In Egypt, people usually pack huge expectations and that adds a lot of pressure, so I don’t want to say that I will come back home with a medal. If eventually I don’t, people will be disappointed. I really hope to achieve it in Tokyo 2020 and even if not, I think I’ll continue trying until 2024 or 2028.
Who are your role models within and outside the field, and why?
Within the field, my role model is Natalie Coughlin, a swimmer from the U.S. She had many achievements and won several Olympic medals, but that’s not the only reason why she’s my role model; she does much more, other than swimming, to help others. She gives speeches that share her experiences and her knowledge, and she also starred in ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ She’s an athlete and an Olympian, but swimming is not the only thing that defines her. Outside the field, I love Roger Federer, [the tennis champion]. I admire his achievements of course, but I also love his spirit. He’s very classy, and he never shows discontent when he loses. He usually shows happiness for his opponents. Even though it could be just a show, you feel that it’s very genuine on his part.
What are the obstacles you face as a female athlete? What are the most challenging things you face?
As a female athlete, most of the attention and resources in Egypt are directed towards football. Nowadays, women’s recognition is growing more abundant than it used to be. Previously, it was all about ‘sports men,’ though it has really improved now. There are a lot of women who are proving people wrong, proving that they can achieve excellent results and be great role models for young female athletes. As a female swimmer, there are always annoying comments about your swimsuits and your muscular body. They say that a girl shouldn’t have so much muscle showing, but if I didn’t pack this much muscle mass, I wouldn’t have reached where I am today! They focus on very minor details instead of my achievements. At the beginning, I used to feel down over these comments, but then I kind of got over it. It’s just like football, if you remove the ball, how can you play? I wear a swimsuit because I swim, not because it looks a certain way.
In the 2018 Mediterranean Games, you were the only female swimmer out of nine other Egyptian swimmers. Does that give you a sense of pride?
It definitely gave me a sense of pride because I was representing female swimmers in Egypt, but at the same time, it just felt sad because I really wanted more women to participate. I hope to inspire female swimmers to continue their journey until the very end. Sometimes you just reach a phase where you just want to quit sports for outings and marriage and all that, but I say that you can do it all. You don’t have to choose one over the other. You can socialise while being a champion, and while pursuing your education. It’s not going to be easy at all, but you can create a balance instead of sacrificing. You can do it all if you have the determination and commitment
What message would you like to give young girls who want to chase their dreams?
I would tell them that they have to pursue sports in general, and not just for the achievements. Sports teach you so many things that will help you eventually in life. The simplest example is time management, alongside being healthy and performing under pressure. All these are skills that could be used beyond sports. It’s much more rewarding beyond the medals, so I really want to inspire them that we can do it all, regardless of how cliché this sounds. I want to set a good example that even though I’m good at this, this and this, I could still be good at that, that and that.
Do you believe that the Egyptian media gives enough credit to swimming competitions?
It’s definitely improving. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. Nowadays, people are finally showing interest in individual sports that they never even knew existed because the media never sheds light on them. If you achieve something, this will be the cause of the noise. You just need to focus on your success rather than whether the media has you under the spotlight or not.
Do you sometimes feel pressured that you are a role model for many young people?
I don’t think of it as a sort of pressure, I actually think of it as a motivating factor. It’s definitely hard that I’m the one setting the example, building one thing over another, but it’s definitely more of a driving force than pressure.
Who are your supporters? Who motivates you to keep going?
My parents and my brother. We’re extremely close even though my brother lives in Dubai right now, while I live in the States and my parents live in Egypt. We’re in different countries, but we know every single detail about one another. Without them, I would have never achieved what I did. Since day one, they have always believed in me and supported me. We always share our opinions on anything and everything.
What message would you like to give aspiring swimmers?
In order to achieve great things, you need to understand that it takes sacrifice, time, patience and hard work. It’s not going to happen overnight, so have the patience and set a plan to achieve that goal. Follow your plan step-by-step like a staircase, don’t say that you want something achieved and then do nothing about it.
If you could settle down anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
When I settle down, I want it to be in Egypt. I have been living abroad for five years now. Even though it’s fun, it’s always missing family and friends. You reach a certain point where you want to go back to the people you grew up with and the atmosphere you grew up in. I want to settle down in Egypt after achieving everything I set my mind to.
If you weren’t an athlete, what would have been your career and why?
I really enjoy fashion, runways and fashion shows. I love dressing up! I’d rather have a glam photo-shoot where I get to wear dresses and apply make up much more than being in the pool. I think I would’ve done anything related to fashion even though my university major has nothing to do with it.
Did you ever imagine that you’d be where you are right now?
I don’t really think of it that way. I love how people view me as a role model, but I focus more on achieving and succeeding, and that’s what’s going to lead me to becoming a good example. Whatever I did, anyone can reach it, if they just have the right plan and the right mind-set to get there. I hope that my journey sets a good example for people to know they can realise their dreams.
What’s your next goal? What aspirations do you have for the future?
Other than swimming, my biggest aspiration is to see Egyptians succeeding abroad. There’s always that stereotype against Egypt or the Middle East in general. I want the day to come where we prove them wrong and show them that Egypt can hold its own in sports or in any other field. We have so much potential, but we lack the resources to reach our goals. When someone has potential, we should get them the support they need so that we can prove the world wrong. We have so much potential, we just need to provide care and encouragement.