Some of Egypt’s top swimmers are stranded in the United States, trying to find a way to fly home in the wake of the postponement of the Olympic Games due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With universities, gyms, clubs and swimming pools all shut down, and no Olympics on the horizon, Egyptian swimmers living and training in the US have no reason to stay there, yet are unable to leave because of the travel restrictions.
Youth Olympics gold medallist Ahmed Akram is stuck alone in North Carolina, where he has been coaching the swim team at NC State University and preparing for Tokyo 2020.
The 23-year-old was planning on staying in the United States until the Olympics, and was targeting a meet in Indianapolis in May to secure his A-cut qualification timings.
The distance swimmer, who placed 11th in the 1,500m heats at the Rio 2016 Olympics, and fell just short of the podium at the World Championships in 2015, finishing fourth in the 1,500m final, says he is currently self-isolating alone in his apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina – both his room-mates left – and is looking to find a way to make it back to Egypt.
"I have been stuck for a week, haven't been practicing for a week because they closed all the pools and gyms here. I've been doing nothing," Akram told The National in an online video call, adding that he felt both sad and bored.
“The last swim meet I had here was in Des Moines, Iowa, it was the Pro Swim Series [this month] and I won the 800m, and I went 7:55 [his fastest swim in the event since 2017] and that’s a second off of the A-cut for the Olympics. I was aiming for Indianapolis because I knew I could get the cuts there. But unfortunately with the virus, everything got cancelled.
“I just want to get home and be with my family.”
'Sad and disappointed'
Akram made history for Egypt at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing in 2014 when he became the first-ever swimmer from the North African nation to secure a gold medal at an Olympic Games.
He had a standout college swimming career at University of South Carolina, before he graduated in 2019. He returned to the US in September to work with the team at NC State, and train for the now-postponed Tokyo Games.
Several Egyptian swimmers are in a similar situation to Akram’s, including Egypt’s star sprinter Farida Osman, who is a two-time World Championship bronze medallist.
Yasser Idris, the president of the Egyptian Swimming Federation, is currently working with the country’s Minister of Sport Dr Ashraf Sobhy to find a safe way to bring back Akram, Osman and the other swimmers in the US.
It has been a tumultuous few weeks for many athletes, who have all seen their training interrupted and their competitions postponed or cancelled. Like many Olympians, Akram is heartbroken over the postponement of the Olympics.
“It’s definitely sad because I’ve been working really hard. It’s very disappointing. I’m just going to keep working and I’ll get my cuts [qualifying times],” he said.
“I think we needed this time to relax a little bit because we had a lot of pressure on our shoulders.
“I just want to get home and talk to my mom and see how my future is going to be the next couple of months because we’re going to have probably 12 months – I don’t know when the Olympics exactly will be, hopefully in 12 months or more.
"I’m just going to go home, keep practicing, do my best and work even harder and pretend this didn’t happen.”