Farida Osman: Breaking barriers for African and Middle Eastern women 

Farida Osman of Egypt competes in the Women's 100m Freestyle heats for the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Farida Osman of Egypt competes in the Women's 100m Freestyle heats for the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

When Farida Osman hits the water at next year’s Olympic Games, she will be a beacon of hope for all women from the Middle East and the whole African continent.

“I am truly honoured to be a role model for them and hopefully inspire more African and Middle Eastern women to do the same - and hopefully even better,” she said.

Osman is the fastest swimmer in Egypt and Africa and is the only Egyptian who qualified for both London 2012 and Rio 2016. She is an All-Africa Games medallist and Egyptian national champion, who also set new African records in both butterfly and freestyle at the 2017 FINA World Championships.

In Egypt, Osman is regarded is a trailblazer and role model. She was chosen as the 'Best Female athlete from Africa 2017' and a swimming complex in the country has been named after her. This has all the more weight in a country where swimming takes a backseat to other popular sports such as football.

“What really motivates me and encourages me is breaking barriers. I strive to continue being the first and leading the way for others.”

It's for this reason why Osman has a career of firsts.

“I was the first Arab woman to reach the podium, the first Egyptian to win a gold medal at Junior World Championships (in a WR time), the first Egyptian to final at Senior World Championships, the first Egyptian or Arab woman to semi-final in the Olympics, and most importantly, the first Egyptian to medal at World Championships.”

In 2019, she further cemented her reputation as one of Egypt's best when won bronze medal again in the World Championships held in South Korea in July.

“These accomplishments are what keep me going and I will always want to strive for more to raise the bar high for future Egyptian, African and Arab swimmers.”

Growing up in two cultures

Osman, nicknamed the 'Golden Fish' grew up in both the United States and Egypt – two different cultures that shaped her convictions and sensibilities both as an athlete and person.

“I grew up in Egypt where swimming is not the common sport, let alone for a female. Being the first to be able to break into the international scene has taught me to deal with the added pressure of being the focal point of reference,” she said.

While Osman has Egypt in her heart, she is grateful for all the Olympic-level exposure she gained in the US.

"I had to be away from my family and move to the US since I knew that training in the US was the only way to get the best out of my capabilities and be the best version of myself."

“[In the US] I felt extremely privileged that I was able to learn the tricks of the trade from the most experienced people in the field, train and compete with the best, understand the discipline required, and focus on the intricacies of the sport which, among many other things, can make all the difference.”

But at her core, Osman knows what she is swimming for.

“It was my responsibility to shift that paradigm of being an Arab woman in swimming. I have learnt to become a role model and an ambassador for those who thought that its un-doable or against the status quo.”

Training on hold

She was training in the US back in March when the lockdown happened due to COVID-19. When training centres and pools were shut, Osman together with other Egyptian athletes had to fly back to Egypt. They were quarantined for two weeks before they could see their families again.

Now back in Egypt, Osman continues to train at home where, luckily, she has a small pool, but she is raring to go back to the US to continue training.

“I am closely watching how the situation in the US will unfold and when it would be safe to go back to the US to continue my training. So I’m staying in Egypt until then.”

For Olympic athletes like Osman, having this interruption to their normal routine can be frustrating.

“You train so hard for four full years, focusing on every single detail, only for a situation out of our control to take it all away. A little more than a week after that, that pool was closed all together.”

But she also sees the positives of this downtime.

“There was a silver lining in going home to my family, safe and sound. It was really nice to be back home with them since I have seen or been with them for a close to a year.”

“I know everything happens for a reason and I’m choosing to stay positive, re-evaluate and keep moving forward. I see it now as another year to get better and stronger. Same goal, just re-adjusting the plan.”

Farida Osman swims in the heats of the 100m butterfly at the 2016 Arena Pro Swim Series at Santa Clara at George F. Haines International Swim Centre, USA. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Farida Osman swims in the heats of the 100m butterfly at the 2016 Arena Pro Swim Series at Santa Clara at George F. Haines International Swim Centre, USA. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

Tokyo 2020 – her third Olympics

Before the lockdown, Osman was in full Olympic training mode. She runs a very strict training regimen to prepare for the Olympics - swimming 9-10 times a week coupled with 3-4 weightlifting sessions, two dryland plus pilates and yoga for flexibility.

As her third Olympics, her goal had always been the same.

My goal is and will always be to get on the podium. I know this comes with a lot of pressure but I am doing whatever it takes until this goal becomes a reality.”

Back at London 2012, she almost didn’t make an appearance when the original quota had been filled. But just ten days out from the start of the Games, she received a call from the Egyptian Federation that she was in.

“I was so excited just to participate and get experience as a 17-year-old. I was not well trained nor prepared, but I wasn’t going to miss such an honour to participate in such a great event.”

She was better prepared in Rio as she was already training in the US under an American coach. She qualified in both the 50m freestyle and 100m butterfly events.

“I was stronger mentally and physically so I was going there to perform and not just participate like in London. I semi-finaled in the 100 fly and I was the first Egyptian to do so so I proud to be the one breaking barriers for Egyptian Swimming.”

Going into her third Olympics, Osman appreciates the significance of the Games for athletes like her.

“Olympics is a place where magic happens and history is made - you see the best athletes in the world competing in one place, its exhilarating. Being part of that while representing my country and potentially raising the Egyptian flag is a real honour.”

If she takes the podium next year, she will dedicate it to her country, Middle East and Africa.

“I am definitely proud to be representing African and Middle Eastern women around the world because for how much talent there is.”

"They become part of my story so I am not only doing this for myself, but for them as well."