It doesn’t take long talking to Youssef Ramadan before you realise the Egyptian teenager means business.
At 19 years of age, Ramadan is extremely ambitious and has a crystal clear vision of what he wishes to accomplish as a swimmer.
“Being the best in the world and being the first person in Egypt’s history to win at the Olympics, this is what I want. And if it won’t come in three years, it’ll come four years later,” Ramadan told The National on the sidelines of the Fina World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi
Over the past few days in Abu Dhabi, Ramadan has given us a hint of what he’s capable of. In his signature event, the 100m butterfly, the Cairene reached the final and came agonisingly close to making the podium, placing fourth with an Egyptian record and personal-best time of 49.50 seconds. He was a mere 0.29 seconds behind bronze medallist Andrei Minakov.
On Monday, he produced a 22.37 second split in the butterfly leg to help Egypt qualify in second place for the 4x50m medley relay final. It was an historic achievement for the Egyptians, who smashed the African record and made it to a relay final for the first time in history at the Worlds.
Ramadan went 22.12 in the final as the Egyptian team broke the African record they had set that morning and finished in fifth place overall.
In the 100m freestyle heats, Ramadan swam an Egyptian record of 46.98 seconds to advance to the semi-finals, where he placed 13th overall.
On Tuesday morning, he split 50.89 seconds for the butterfly leg of the 4×100m medley relay in the prelims, contributing to an African record time of 3:30.83 and a twelfth-place ranking across all heats.
For Ramadan, it was a positive meet but he is far from satisfied. These short-course World Championships were a mere stepping stone for what’s to come as he hopes to break more records with Virginia Tech in the NCAAs and to make the podium at the long-course World Championships in Fukuoka next summer.
“From being 16th at the Olympics to fourth, it’s big progress,” Ramadan acknowledges. “I still feel that I have so much for me to go and for me the main thing is in three years, I’ll be at the Olympics with a shot at winning and to make history for my hometown.”
In his first year at Virginia Tech, Ramadan became the fastest freshman in NCAA history when he clocked 44.32 in the 100 yard fly at the ACC Championships. It was the fifth-fastest swim of all-time, across all ages, and it put him on everyone’s radar across the collegiate swimming community.
“I feel like I’ll be the fastest in history in that school; in history, not just in the history of the school. I hope by the end of this season that I’m the fastest in history and I break the NCAA time in the 100 fly,” he says.
At the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year, he put together a national record-breaking 51.67 swim to be placed 14th overall in the 100m butterfly heats and qualified for the semi-finals.
Ramadan says his drive comes from the fact that he “came from zero” and had to work his way up. When he was young, he was never the fastest among his age group and wasn’t expected to make it this far.
“I’ve always been chasing and chasing and chasing them, now I’m here and I’m at the top place and I know I will smash them and I’ll be the first one day,” he says.
“I see it every day and that’s everything I want. This sport for me, it’s who I am right now and I’m not going to stop until the day comes where I’m the best in the world. Every day I get closer and closer. It’s just who I am and I feel that I have to do it.”
Visualising his goals and having such a laser-focused approach has helped Ramadan have complete faith in his process. He is attempting to go where no Egyptian has gone before and is living and breathing his dream every day.
“I think what hands me an edge is my strength in my mind,” he explains.
“I feel I have strength in my mindset where I’m on the block and I have no fear and I’m just here to fight and to compete. Sometimes when I’m on the block I just feel the energy and I’m prepared to die for this race.
“In training I swim fast, but when I’m in a meet what helps me swim so fast and what helps me improve all these times is because my head is just in the right spot and I’m just handing 105 percent of my effort. I have crossed the stage where I’m feeling scared and feeling pain, my legs hurt… I’m just past that stage.
“I don’t know how to explain it but I see my goals every day in my life, before I sleep, when I wake up, in practice. I feel like this is the thing that I want. When I’m listening to my songs, I can just feel my power and feel the energy, it helps me to control the fear and control the nerves inside of me and just race.”
Ramadan’s team-mates are disappointed to walk away from Abu Dhabi without a medal but are proud of their historic showing in the relay.
Every single relay African record is held by South Africa, except for the 4x50m medley mark set by the Egyptians at the Etihad Arena on Monday.
“We exceeded everyone’s expectations, including ourselves’. An African [record] in the morning and this evening, and a top-five finish, we never would have dreamed of this,” said Egypt’s star sprinter Abdelrahman Sameh.
Meanwhile, Farida Osman, the only woman on the Egyptian squad in Abu Dhabi this week, advanced to the 100m butterfly final after a busy evening that saw her swim the semi-finals of the 100 fly and the 50 free within the span of 10 minutes.
“Honestly I don’t think I’ve ever done it before, seven minutes in between both races. But I’m proud of myself for getting up there and racing either way and thank God, tomorrow I’m in the final,” said Osman on Monday.