sports   |   coronavirus

Mohamed Samy was supposed to go to the Olympics. Now he’s training without water.



spiusdfeature042620

Senior Mohamed Samy swims Jan. 25 in the 200-yard breaststroke in IU's meet against Purdue at the Councilman-Billingsley Aquatics Center. Samy was set to represent Eygpt in Tokyo, Japan, this summer before the Olympics were canceled due to the effects of COVID-19. Colin Kulpa

He went to sleep every morning in Egypt at 5 a.m. to keep himself on Bloomington time with the pool on his mind. Sometimes, he dreamed of swimming — the early morning practices, training for the race of his life or hoping everything goes back to normal once again. In his waking hours, he was surrounded by water that he’s forbidden to enter. 

Mohamed Samy, a 23-year-old senior on IU’s swim team, was quarantined in Marsa Alam, Egypt, roughly 500 miles from his parent's home in Cairo, until April 17. He was in a room by himself on the ground floor at the Three Corners Happy Life Beach Resort. His mom was two doors down the hall and at first he couldn't see her.

The 2020 Olympics, scheduled for this summer in Tokyo, were postponed and rescheduled for summer 2021 due to COVID-19. After spending years working to qualify, Samy still hopes to compete, but he needs to find a new way to train. 

The hotel has a pool, and the Red Sea just beyond. He could see the water from his balcony, but the quarantine didn’t allow him to get any closer. Samy traded early morning practices in Bloomington for his early morning dry land workout routine in Egypt, including weights and core exercises such as pushups, burpees and squats.

When he’s not training, he still has to find time to finish his classes so he can graduate at the end of the semester with a Bachelor’s of Science in Intelligent Systems Engineering.

Hotel staff brought him his food each day. He tried to talk to his friends online and constantly checked for news on when he could return to the water and his normal training. He wasn’t allowed to leave his room. 

He doesn’t know when he can get in a pool next. But whenever that is, Samy is doing everything he can to be ready. 

***

Samy used to cry at the thought of getting in the water. 

When he was 3 years old and in nursery school, his class went to a pool. He hated putting his face in the water. 

He remembers when he started swimming at age 7. It took time to feel comfortable in the water. His mom, Sahar Ali Arafa, was a swimmer until age 16. He played basketball and enjoyed karate, but he kept swimming. He overcame his fear and found a love for the sport.

Now whenever he’s bored, he tosses some water on his face.

“He’s a swimmer,” Al Arafa said. 

But when he jumped in the water March 12 in Bloomington, his senior year at IU was winding down. Samy couldn’t focus on his swimming. Even if he knew the cancellation of his season was coming, it certainly didn’t seem real. 

Samy had just left a team meeting before the start of that day’s practice. IU swimming head coach Ray Looze delivered the news bluntly. 

Samy’s senior season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. His final NCAA championship meet was ripped away, and he didn’t know it yet, but that was just the start. 

Two days later, the university closed the Student Recreational Sports Center. He didn’t have a pool to practice in. A week later, the International Olympic Committee announced it would postpone the summer games too. 

“That day I was going into the water,” Samy said. “And I felt lost.” 

***
A play set sits in a pool outside the Three Corners Happy Life Beach Resort in Marsa Alam, Egypt. Mohamed Samy can see the Red Sea from his hotel room. Courtesy Photo

Samy is a native of Cairo, Egypt, and a member of the Egyptian national swimming team. He swims freestyle, backstroke and individual medley events. He has focused on the 200-meter individual medley and the 100-meter freestyle for the Olympics. 

Samy holds the Egyptian national record in the 100-meter freestyle.

He was 19 when he tried to make the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. He was 0.68 seconds away from qualifying. 

“My actual dream was I want to win a medal there,” Samy said. “It wasn’t just showing up there.” 

This summer he would have traveled to Tokyo, Japan, to represent his country in the Olympics. Now he won’t get to. 

With few athletes having access to proper training and borders closing across the world, Samy knew the postponement was coming. Looze tried to hold out hope for his Olympic swimmers, and told them to do what they could to keep training.

But when the postponement was announced, relaying the news was much more difficult for Looze than the cancellation of the college season. Looze saw the years of effort Samy and the younger swimmers put in to reach this point, just to have their dreams pushed back.

“I think they expected it, but when the reality hit it was really rough for them,” Looze said.

Every day when he woke up he checked social media and the internet for news on the Olympics. He saw the news online just as the rest of the world did. It was March 24, and he was still in Bloomington. IU coaches sent out an email soon after. Knowing the postponement was coming didn't make it hurt any less. 

But at the moment he was just as worried about finding a way to get home. 

His mother and sister came to visit him in Bloomington during IU’s extended spring break. They were originally coming for his graduation and final NCAA championship meet. Both events were canceled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Samy could leave his house to take walks and drive to Kroger. But borders were closing around the world, and he wasn’t sure if he could get home. 

“I talked to the Egyptian Federation and asked if I should stay here or go back,” Samy said. “They said if it’s not affecting your academics or immigration, to come back would be the best and safest thing." 

***

There were only two flights back to Egypt.

The Egyptian government gave priority to receive tickets given to citizens who already had plans to return to Egypt around that time. Samy was not one of those people. He had always planned to stay in the U.S. until the Olympics. 

He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get a ticket. 

Samy went to the Egyptian Swimming Federation and asked for help. The Federation worked with the Egyptian Embassy to try to get Samy a ticket. 

Samy would get his ticket on March 31. The flight was slated to leave from Washington D.C. two days later, and Samy was still in Bloomington. 

He and his family rented a car to make the 10-hour drive, and they made it in time. 

When he got to the gate at the airport, he thought they would be going to Cairo. Instead they went to Marsa Alam. 

He, and all the passengers coming in from the United States, were quarantined at the Three Corners Happy Life Beach Resort. He looked out from his balcony and saw what he dreamed of — water. 

Samy hasn’t been in a pool since the SRSC shut down in mid-March. He was just steps away from both the Red Sea and the hotel pool, but all he could do is look. He wasn't allowed in either. 

There was no hotel staff to clean the rooms, instead they brought new sheets and towels to each room and supplies for residents to clean their rooms. The staff brought food to each of the quarantined residents, knocking on the door and leaving plates in the hall with no further communication. 

Early on, Samy had to talk to his mom on the phone each day even though they were two doors away. Doctors came down the halls twice a day to check on each room, ensuring the health of each resident in quarantine. When they knocked on the doors, Samy and his mother could see each other. They couldn’t talk for long, but they could wave. 

“This is my son, I want to visit to be sure he’s okay,” Al Arafa told doctors. 

Toward the end of the quarantine, doctors allowed Samy to leave his room to see his mother. 

He couldn’t take walks or go to the store. All Samy could do were his dry land exercises. During the first week of his quarantine, he woke up at noon after going to sleep at 5 a.m. to be ready for his classes. 

The longer he stayed in quarantine, he started to transition his body clock somewhere in between the time in Egypt and Indiana. His latest class started at 10 p.m. in Egypt, 4 p.m. in Bloomington, and he didn't want to be exhausted on his Zoom call.

His balcony was the only place with strong enough WiFi to make calls or use Zoom. He had a router installed midway through his first week of quarantine. His internet speed was only five megabytes per second at the hotel, compared to the one gigabyte per second he had in Bloomington. 

His Zoom classes are slow and get disrupted. He now has more time to play FIFA 20 on his PlayStation, but his players lag in online matches.

Looze has team meetings on Zoom, and Samy hasn’t been able to join them. He hasn’t seen his teammates and coaches since he left. 

Samy left the Three Corners Happy Life hotel on April 17 and traveled with his family back to Cairo. He’s slowly incorporated runs into his workout routine. 

But he can’t swim, and that’s all he wants to do. He’s bored.  

He misses the water on his face.

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