CAIRO - 24 January 2018: Swimming sensation Farida Osman is showing the world how far determined Egyptian athletes can get, challenging misconceptions about the power of Egyptian females. Back home she’s forcing a national and public recognition of important sports in Egypt other than beloved football.
The 22-year-old international swimming champion was named the Best Female Athlete from Africa at the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) Awards held in Prague in November, only a few months after she had made national history by claiming Egypt’s first-ever medal in a World Swimming Championship in July 2017.
“Winning the world championship was a dream of mine since I was a little girl. I trained so hard to achieve that goal and it was definitely the best feeling ever,” Osman tells Egypt Today. She won the bronze medal at the women’s 50m butterfly final, breaking the African record at 0.25 seconds.
Farida Osman at World Swimming Championship, July 2017 - Courtesy of Farida Osman
Starting her swimming career at five years old, Osman participated in her first official championship at the age of 11, where she won four gold medals. Less than a year later, she joined the Egyptian national team, specialising in sprint butterfly and freestyle swimming and it wasn’t long before she was representing Egypt in the African League. “I was the youngest player in the league and I didn’t understand what was going on,” she recalls with a laugh.
At a very early age, the aspiring athlete had to learn to balance between her academics and her sports career. Waking up at 6:30 every day, she would finish school at 3pm, followed by four hours of fitness and swimming trainings. And after a long day, she would have to start her school work by 9 o’clock in the evening.
“I would be exhausted and I would not want to do any schoolwork but I had to. And whenever the clock struck midnight, I would go to sleep to be able to continue the next day,” Osman remembers.
Farida Osman visiting Plan Egypt project in Ezbet Khairallah slum - Egypt Today/Yasmine Hassan
This challenging daily routine, as well as the lack of support she felt for playing a less loved sport than the ever-popular football, was the first of many challenges the young athlete struggled to overcome. “Between 15 and 18 years old, I didn’t like swimming at all. No one supported me and all my friends would go out and travel while I was training all the time,” Osman says. “It was a very difficult phase and if it weren’t for my parents, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. They have been supporting me since I was very young and they later supported me to travel to the U.S. which also helped me a lot.”
Osman recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, having completed her studies in marketing and advertising. She had been offered a full sports scholarship to swim for the university, which was her perfect chance to pursue her academics and sports career at a university that excels in both. As a freshman, Osman qualified for the 2014 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships and placed eighth in the 100m butterfly. She also earned NCAA All-America honors; and later won the team’s “Most Improved” award.
Though there were a lot of advantages in the U.S., there were different challenges, Osman says. “The coach didn’t know much about what swimming is like in Egypt, so I always had to prove myself and that I am as good as the others are. . . . ‘Yes I am Egyptian but I can be faster than others,’” she recalls telling him, adding that the competition was very strong and keeping her place on the team required continuous effort.
Farida Osman - Reuters
With her bachelor’s degree under her belt, Osman is currently training for her third Olympic participation, at the Tokyo 2020 games.
Although it’s still early in her career, the young athlete’s significant accomplishments at international swimming championships have been much more than a personal achievement, sparking a wider social influence. She has managed to spotlight the wide spectrum of sports and activities that Egyptians can excel at, other than the beloved football.
“At the beginning, no one encouraged, supported or even gave attention to any sports other than football. So after I had overcome all these obstacles to show that there are other sports [in which we] can achieve even better than football, now I think it will be easier for others to pursue this path,” Osman says proudly.
The federation also started to increase efforts to support swimmers in the past few years, Osman says. “We are getting more of the care and the attention that we need,” she says, adding that Egyptian swimming is moving in the right direction, as “a lot of great swimmers are now competing more and more on the international level.”
An international champion and a symbol of hope, the young athlete has also embarked on a social mission, seeking to become an ambassador for young Egyptian females and to “give back to her community.”
“I am really interested to help young females to achieve what they want to. I try to be as much of a role model as I can because I want to help and inspire other people—not only in sports but whatever goal they have,” Osman says, stressing that misconceptions about females are starting to change, thanks to “a lot of great athletes and great women who do great things in society.”
Having some free time away from the pressure of school and exams, the young athlete is also pursuing a new passion for kickboxing; and trying to keep up with fashion trends. “I love fashion and I really enjoy fashion designing,” she reveals to Egypt Today.
In future, Osman is hoping to open a sports academy and to work in sports marketing and management, combining her academic and swimming backgrounds.