Meet the Palestinian swimmers in the diaspora making a splash for their team

Born and raised far from their ancestral home, Valerie Tarazi and Yazan Al Bawwab have scooped the Palestinian national team's first gold medals

Palestine's Yazan Al Bawwab competing in the men's 100m backstroke at the World Aquatics Championships in Japan. AFP
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Palestine is not a place traditionally associated with big names in swimming – but that might be changing.

During the Arab Sports Games in Algeria last month, Palestine's national swimming team won four gold medals.

It was the first time the country's swimmers had even made it to the medals podium.

Valerie Tarazi, who won gold in the 100m backstroke and 50m breaststroke; silver in the 50m butterfly, 100m and 200m breaststroke; and bronze in the 50m backstroke, said it was “a special moment”.

“That was a big thing for us and for Palestine,” Tarazi, 23, told The National from Fukuoka, Japan, where she was participating in the World Aquatics Championships.

“We're just proud because every time we stepped up on the podium, it seemed like the Palestinian national anthem was playing.

“Everyone was surprised and it was just a very special moment.”

There are no Olympic-sized pools in the occupied West Bank or the Gaza Strip, and there is very limited infrastructure or resources to scout, let alone train young talent. Half of the 20 swimmers on the Palestinian national team live abroad.

Tarazi was born in the US state of Illinois. Her grandfather was from Gaza, where she still has family.

She started swimming when she was three years old, but it was not until high school that she began to focus exclusively on the sport. Before that, she had dabbled in other sports including hockey, softball, baseball and tennis.

“I did everything, but I like swimming the best and that's kind of what stuck with me,” said Tarazi, who recently graduated from Auburn University with a degree in supply chain management.

“It wasn't necessarily the easiest, but that's the one I liked. So I stuck with that.”

The team’s unprecedented success comes amid yet another violent escalation in the prolonged Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as hopes for a Palestinian state appear farther away than ever.

The grim reality at home has given an opportunity for those living in the diaspora to elevate Palestinian sports, using athletics as a platform to represent their identity and their cause to the world.

“I wanted to go back to the roots,” Tarazi said.

“I wanted to honour my family, honour Palestine and honour my country. And I wanted to give back to Palestine and the Palestinian people.”

Tarazi trains in the pool for up to 20 hours a week, does weight training four days a week and then does several days of “land training” – exercises for swimmers that are done in the gym.

“Swimming is a lifestyle,” she said. “You have to be an athlete 24/7. You have to eat right, sleep right and recover properly, and that's all the time.”

Tarazi was joined in Fukuoka by Yazan Al Bawwab, also 23, who was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian refugee parents and grew up in Dubai.

During the Arab Games, Al Bawwab, who trains in the Netherlands, won two gold medals in the 100m and the 50m backstroke.

“We shone in an area of the world where we're from, that has propelled us and we're happy to have raised our flag,” Al Bawwab told The National.

“Palestinian people are very loyal to Palestine,” he said.

Al Bawwab, who represented Palestine in the 2020 Olympics, studied aerospace and mechanical engineering in Canada.

This year, 22 countries took part in the Arab Games, and Palestine participated in 12 sports including football, basketball, weightlifting, wrestling and judo.

The swim team will be going to the Asia Games in September in Hangzhou, China, for the World Cup series and will compete in the 2024 Olympics, among other meets.

“If there's an option for me to participate with Palestine, I’ll do it,” Al Bawwab said. “It's not even a question. I don't want to represent anybody else.”

Updated: August 11, 2023, 6:11 PM