Olympic Dreams: Marwan Elkamash finds renewed zest for swimming after fearing career was over due to Covid

Exclusive: Egyptian thought about calling it a day after coronavirus ground preparations for Tokyo Games to a halt

As part of our buildup to the Tokyo Olympics we will be profiling Arab athletes and para-athletes as well as those from the Mena region hoping to make it to this summer's Games

When the sporting world came to a screeching halt a year ago because of the coronavirus, Egyptian swimmer Marwan Elkamash felt like his career was about to be over.

Chasing a second Olympic Games appearance and having just clocked the fastest time of the year in the 400m freestyle final at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Des Moines, Elkamash suddenly felt like he had nothing to train for.

"When Covid happened, I was like, 'I'm done swimming'. What's for me to look forward to? I'm 26 at the time, swimming is over pretty much," Elkamash told The National.

“It’s really hard to get into swimming after taking four months off, especially for a distance swimmer like me. Especially with the news, sometimes they say, ‘Hey, the Olympics is going to happen’, and sometimes they say, ‘No, it’s not going to happen’. And that’s what was messing with my mind a lot at the time. Because sometimes I’d be training and I’m like, ‘What am I even doing this for?’”

Up until that point, the 27-year-old freestyler had gone to extreme lengths to keep his swimming dreams alive. His passion for his sport and his eagerness to gain access to the best possible training conditions took him from his hometown of Alexandria to all corners of the Earth.

Elkamash left Egypt as a teenager in 2012 when he received a scholarship to study and swim at the University of South Carolina. “At first when I was in Egypt, my goal was just to go to the US; I just wanted to study there, swim there, get a scholarship, and that was it. And then one year after another, my goals got bigger. I made the Olympics in 2016, I made several world champs, so I was like, ‘Why not swim at a better school?’” Elkamash said.

After three years as a Gamecock, he transferred to Indiana University (IU), a top-three school in college swimming. But first the Alexandrian took a year off to train in South Africa with Olympic and world champion Chad Le Clos under the tutelage of Graham Hill.

“Honestly it was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” he recalls. “I only swam in Durban from November through April and then after April we would basically go to a different country every three weeks. I was super happy. It makes things less boring too, because you don’t train in the same place, you see different people.”

Elkamash is a firm believer in surrounding himself with excellence in order to achieve big things, and who better to train with than someone like Le Clos, who stunned Michael Phelps to win the 200m butterfly at the 2012 London Olympics in 2012, and a multiple world and Olympic medallist in his own right?

“Chad is the most fun person you’ll ever meet, whether it’s in the water or out, he somehow makes it fun, he makes life fun or makes swimming fun. I love training with him, he’s always making jokes, all the time, even during practice, which made Graham mad all the time. But it was funny and we were still able to train really, really good,” said Elkamash.

On his Olympics debut in Rio, Elkamash clocked personal best times and smashed Egyptian national records in the 200m and 400m freestyle. He was so nervous in the 400 free that he swam the first 200 metres under world-record pace. He ended up placing a respectable 16th among 50 swimmers.

“The Olympics was like a dream. First of all, our generation of Egyptian swimmers is the only generation that went to the Olympics with A-cuts [the higher benchmark of qualifying times]; that never happened before, and we didn’t only have one, we had like maybe four or five swimmers. And that’s unheard of for Egypt in swimming,” said Elkamash.

“People used to go with B-cuts, two swimmers, just to represent. The Olympics was awesome. I met people from other sports that I never thought I would meet.”

Indeed, Elkamash is part of Egypt’s strongest ever generation of swimmers, all of whom swam for universities in America.

“This generation is very competitive and no one wants to have less achievements than the other. Which helped in a good way; sometimes it can get a bit toxic but I think it helps in a good way, swimming-wise,” he added.

Elkamash says he is not too sociable by nature but that never stopped him from seeking out the best minds.

“When I go to world champs or any world-class meet, because I love swimming, I would go to different coaches, ask them about how they train, just try to stay in contact with them,” he explains.

Elkamash went to Indiana after the Rio Games, where he resumed his college swimming career. He earned two All-America honours at the 2017 NCAA Championships before lowering his 200m and 400m personal bests at the World Championships in Budapest. His national record time of 3:46.36 in the 400m saw him miss out on the final by a mere 0.22 seconds.

Coming so close to making a final at a world championship gave Elkamash the belief that he could compete against the very best but another juncture came his way when he graduated from IU.

With no scholarship money to fall back on, he had to go back to the drawing board in order to find a way to sustain himself and his training.

“I had to kind of go backwards, where I would just contact coaches and clubs and sponsors as well, because I had to either work or keep swimming. I’m not saying the federation doesn’t support us, because now they are, but back then no,” he recounts.

Elkamash’s search landed him a stint with Energy Standard, one of the best swim clubs in the world, based in Antalya, Turkey. There, he reunited with Le Clos, and other top-class swimmers, but the constant travel with the team eventually took its toll and Elkamash admitted he lacked stability during his time in Europe.

“I would say from 2018, 2019, swimming-wise was pretty bad. But the experience I got was honestly the best you can get from swimming. I was hanging out with the best people in the sport. I saw how they do things, how they coach, how they train, everything,” he said.

At the end of 2019, Elkamash got his Green Card and received support from the Egyptian Swimming Federation, which meant  moving back to Indiana, where he is currently training among the post-grad group of pro swimmers at IU.

After moving from the US to South Africa to the US to Turkey and then back to the States, it's understandable why Elkamash's resolve was shaken when Covid suspended all sporting activity and put his Tokyo dreams on hold last year.

But he snapped out of it and managed to change his mindset, finding motivation away from the pool that helped him focus on other things and not just swimming. He got into trading stocks, bought a dog and dabbled in various interests.

He caught Covid-19 in July and had to spend a day in hospital, but soon recovered and returned to training. In November he secured qualification for Tokyo by winning the 800m freestyle at the US Open in Indianapolis. It was his first race since the pandemic hit; he had to compete in three events within a 36-hour stretch, and had to adjust to long-course swimming after training in a 25m pool for months.

Elkamash swam a personal-best 7:52.19 to take 800m free gold, shaving three-and-a-half seconds off of his previous best.

“I’m 27 now, and I’m training the best I’ve ever been in my life. Even training with people that made the Olympics, made Olympic finals, and not to sound [arrogant] or anything, but no one can keep up with me in training. My training now has been the best it’s ever been,” Elkamash says.

“I think now I’m finding passion for different things, not just swimming. So I like to do things I love. Even like small things. I have two dogs, and those small things make a huge difference, more than I would have ever thought. So my mind is not only on swimming.

“At the US Open I went to my coach and I was like, ‘Hey, these are the times I want to be swimming’. He looked at me and was like, ‘Hey, you should know that we haven’t raced in a year. I like your goals but you should not be disappointed if you didn’t go anywhere near those times’. I was like, ‘Sure’. I just kind of ignored what he said to be honest. And it just happened.

“It felt so special to qualify. I’ve been to the Olympics before, I’ve made an A-cut before but this time it was very special, because I’ve been through so much.”

Elkamash has now found the stability he had always been looking for. He is training at IU with his coach Cory Chitwood – an NCAA champion who has worked with several Olympic and world champions – and gets to share a pool every day with the likes of Blake Pieroni, Lilly King, Cody Miller, Annie Lazor, and Zane Grothe. His younger brother Youssef also trains there.

Last weekend, Elkamash scooped two gold medals in the 200 and 400 free at the Pro Swim Series meet in San Antonio. His main target now is to reach a final at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I’m just going to train. If it happens, it happens,” he said of the Olympics. “If not, that’s something I cannot control. I’m training so well now, I’m in the best shape I’ve ever had, I’m not going to give this up. I don’t know how many times in my life I’ll be in this shape. So I’ll keep working harder and harder, and if I can maintain what I’m doing now, I think I’ll have a very good year.”