Abdelrahman Elaraby: Life After Death

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of SwimSwam magazine. Subscribe here.

Content Warning: The content of this article includes discussions surrounding self-harm, suicide, death, and depression.

The 2022 ACC Championships marked Abdelrahman “Haridi” Elaraby’s third near-miss at a title in the 50-yard freestyle, a result that left him in disarray. For Elaraby, an Egyptian national competing for the Louisville Cardinals, this snub coincided with a long-winded battle of depression and self-doubt, one that was exacerbated by the recent trials of the COVID-19 pandemic, a missed shot at the 2020 Egyptian Olympic team, the loss of his grandfather, and years spent away from his family and home. This perfect storm pushed Elaraby over the brink, and just days after the meet, he attempted to take his own life.

Recruited from Egypt, Elaraby arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, in December 2018. A fresh-faced 18-year-old, he was thrilled at the prospect of coming to the United States to swim collegiately. “Coming here my freshman year, I was excited. I had all of these expectations — I had all these ideas in my head.” Elaraby says.

Elaraby, like many international student-athletes, left behind his home, family, friends and culture with hopes of making his mark on the sport, namely by qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Elaraby had an idealistic picture of how things would be when he got to America. Instead, he faced a grueling training cycle, intense competition, and a “win-at-all-cost” mentality at Louisville. A big adjustment from his experience in Egypt, Elaraby had to adapt without the support of his family, bringing on feelings of depression and low self-worth.

Elaraby’s most trying battle began while trying to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The Olympics were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic; everything shut down and he, like most others in the sport, had to train alone, without his coaches, without a pool. The isolation and uncertainty were especially hard to cope with when Elaraby’s grandfather passed away. He missed the chance to attend his grandfather’s memorial because of lingering flight restrictions and had to grieve alone.

“[I had] to stay here and train and qualify for the Olympics,” Elaraby shares. “I remember I could not swim. I just lost my grandfather and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

After missing the Olympic qualifying time in the 50 free by 0.1 at Egyptian Nationals, Elaraby traveled to the 2021 Indy TYR Pro in Indianapolis to try again. Still grieving the loss of his grandfather, Elaraby hung all his hopes on the qualifying A time standard.

“I [didn’t] do well,” he says. “I think I beat Nathan Adrian at that meet, but I still did not qualify for the Olympics. Two years ago, I was nobody back home in Egypt, and today I swam next to Nathan Adrian and I beat him. But I couldn’t be happy about it, ‘cause I was just like ‘If I don’t qualify for the Olympics I’m an absolute failure.’”

That meet marked a low point for him. “I kinda lost hope on it to be honest with you.”

Elaraby traveled to Greece shortly after for one more attempt at qualifying, but his heart wasn’t in it anymore and he was met with failure again. “I’m like, what do I do now? Who am I? Do I have anything else going on in my life right now? I took off my suit, and I just feel worthless — I just feel like I’m nobody,” Elaraby recalls.

Elaraby took that summer off and spent time in Egypt with his family. He returned to Louisville in the fall of 2021, hoping for a fresh start, but his return to the pool came with painful reminders of his missed goals. “This past year went for nothing,” Elaraby says, “What is next year going to go for? Nothing again? Then I started really not enjoying [swimming].”

Elaraby admits he began to think of suicide after the Olympics saga. During a mandatory 10-day quarantine in a hotel after contracting COVID, Elaraby grappled with suicide ideation. Back and forth he went, until he finally opted to call the UofL Director of Mental Performance, Dr. Vanessa Shannon. She helped him change his mind and after speaking with her, he scheduled recurring sessions with a therapist.

“I started getting better. I started swimming really well,” Elaraby shares, “I went to Worlds; I semifinaled twice; I broke two national records; we broke the African record; we had the first-ever relay from Egypt to qualify for finals and we got fourth. Life was going good.”

After returning from Worlds with his decorated performances, Elaraby reached out to his swim club and asked for help acquiring sponsorships. They explained they wouldn’t help, as he is not an Olympian and did not medal at Worlds. He reached out to an agent and went to his federation, but no one was willing to help him become sponsored. “As an international student-athlete, no one wants to mess with me cause they’re playing with the immigration rules and the federal taxes rules, so I’m like salvage value for everybody.”

Discouraged by the rejections, Elaraby was left defeated going into 2022 ACCs. He took the runner-up spot in the 50-yard free yet again, by less than a tenth of a second. “I had some hiccups with the coaches [at ACCs]. I remember afterwards thinking, ‘I don’t feel good. I don’t feel happy.’”

Soon after returning to Louisville, Elaraby gave himself an ultimatum. “I give myself two weeks. If I don’t feel good, I’m gonna kill myself.”

Two weeks passed with no improvement. On March 12, 2022, Elaraby decided to follow through. He assured his friends that he was having someone over that evening and they should enjoy their night out without him. “For like thirty minutes, I sat down in my room crying, trying to find one reason why I should not kill myself.” Elaraby details, “I couldn’t find one reason not to kill myself. I just sat down on my bed, trying to think about anything to say, anything to do. I opened the two Benadryl bottles, swallowed [them]. And I was like, ‘This is it.’”

“I just lay down in bed. I started feeling sleepy, but in the back of my head I was like, ‘I’m about to die, I’m about to die,’” Elaraby recalls. “I started losing feelings in my fingers, losing feelings in my feet.”

While Elaraby lay there, his roommates were texting in the group chat. He says they were texting him about how much fun they were having. “All I can think about is how these guys are gonna come back, and I’m laying in bed, dead, ya’ know? Not breathing, nothing at all.

“I tried to do the undo button. I stuck all of my fingers into my throat, trying to throw up. I couldn’t throw up — I could barely walk. I’m swerving around the apartment, grabbing a cup, filling it with water. I can’t hold the cup real good. The floor starts moving, my vision is starting to get blurry, I see things in my fingers. My skin is getting really red, my mouth is dry, I can’t swallow. I’m like, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Elaraby says he texted the group chat: “I swallowed a whole bottle of sleeping pills. Help. Please.” Immediately after that, he called his best friend, Santi, to intervene. Santi pleaded with him over the phone, “I’m on my way, don’t die, don’t die, I love you, don’t die, don’t die.”

Elaraby recalls the image that stood out the most to him that night: “I catch a reflection of myself in the mirror, I see someone who is really, really struggling and not wanting to die. I couldn’t help but feel guilty for killing that person because at that point, I knew I wasn’t going to make it.”

His memory of the rest of the night comes through in bits and pieces. “I remember there were police officers in my room. EMS was there. I remember hearing the EMS say, ‘He’s about to stop breathing’. I heard that, and I couldn’t do anything about it. My friend was crying in front of me. I couldn’t say a single word. I remember seeing [my athletic trainer], Alex, at the end of the hallway, an EMS guy standing next to him. That was the last thing I saw.”

In transit, Elaraby’s heart and breathing stopped. But two days later, he woke up from a coma in the UofL Hospital with Alex and his coaches Arthur Albiero and Chris Lindauer in the room. “I remember opening my eyes and Arthur was just standing next to the bed with Chris and Alex. I’m in the UofL Hospital. I made it. I immediately started crying.”

Once discharged from the hospital, Elaraby was moved to the Brook Hospital at Dupont, a psychiatric hospital, where he had to give up all of his belongings. He had only a piece of paper with his friends’ numbers on one side and notes of encouragement they had written on the other.

“During that time, I realized I want to live as a human, not as a swimmer,” he shares. After leaving the Brook, he asked his coaches for some time off from the pool. The UofL coaches told him to take a week off and return to practice the next week. “I came back to the pool, and I think I did not get through more than 16 minutes of swimming.” He recalls, “I’m [shouting] out, ‘this is stupid’, ‘this is ridiculous’, ‘why am I doing this?’”

Shortly after returning to the pool, he received the news that Chris, his primary coach and most respected mentor, would be leaving UofL to coach at Notre Dame. The timing couldn’t be worse, and it was a huge blow to Elaraby’s already precarious mental state.

“After that, I quit swimming. I texted my therapist, ‘I’m done’. I went to see Arthur to tell him,” Elaraby shares. He stopped swimming entirely, and spent some time volunteering until he returned home for the summer.

On May 12, 2022 Elaraby shared his harrowing experience publicly for the first time in a post on Instagram with the hashtag, #NoOneFliesAlone. This post saw an outpouring of messages in reply, some expressing support, others questioning his decision to share his experience at all. “People ask me why I do this, why do I talk about it? I can’t stress it enough, how horrible of an experience it was. I don’t wish this on anybody else. And if this will save one life, please let it be so.”

As he opens up about the turbulent past year he has had, he remarks, “People talk about suicide and think that attempting it is the hardest part. No, trying to live after the fact that you almost killed yourself is the hardest part.”

Moving on from a suicide attempt for Elaraby meant taking a hard look at how being a high-performance swimmer has impacted his mental health. Therapy has played a major role in Elaraby’s healing since his attempt, and he pushes back against the stigma that exists around men being open and vulnerable about mental and emotional wellness.

“There are multiple ways to therapy,” Elaraby says, “especially for men to understand. Going to my therapist doesn’t mean I’m lying down on the couch and crying about things. No, I’m just talking, I’m just talking and letting things out. I don’t think that makes me less of a man… I need to be healthy. This is the real stigma that we need to break. And me speaking about it, and more people speaking about it is only going to do us good.”

To that end, sharing his story publicly has been a vital part of his recovery. “I have made a lot of progress…. being involved in ‘Cards All In’ [and] being vocal about it. Talking to people has been really helpful.” Elaraby shares, “To have the gift of having people be comfortable around me, talking to me about something like that… that’s something I’m really, really thankful for.”

While opening up about his struggles and focusing on wellness, Elaraby did not let go of his goals of being a standout swimmer. But he knew he needed to find a healthier balance. “Don’t let [swimming] consume you,” he says. “Make a differentiation between who you are in and out of the pool. Swimming is just a part of what you do, it’s not a part of who you are.”

He set out to have a life away from the pool. “I started exploring other things. One time I did a cooking video for a restaurant, Biscuit Belly, and I’m trying to do another one. I cook a lot. I’m thinking about making a cooking channel.”

The work he did on himself over the summer of 2022 marked a turning point for Elaraby. He returned home and had the chance to race at Long Course World Champs in Budapest. He didn’t swim lifetime bests, but he recalls being happy with the results.

“When I got back [to Louisville], I started training with the team. I did everything to find the passion again.” He challenged himself to keep faith. “I trusted the process until ACCs.” Elaraby shares, “And I got back into my religion — still trying to at this point — and I prayed the night before and prayed the day of [the 50-yard free].

“I remember warming up. I’m like, I don’t want anything in my life more than to win this 50 free.

I stepped on the block, I did my thing, and I won. It paid off. The moment they put that headset on my head, I’m like this is the moment I’ve waited for for four years of ACCs. I thought about what I was going to say the night before — I had so many speeches ready. But the moment they put that headset on, everything just flew out of my head.”

And Elaraby spoke from the heart.

“It’s crazy to think I’m still here,” Elaraby says through tears directly after his 50-yard free victory. “If it means anything for anybody, it’s OK to fall. It’s OK to fail. It’s OK to lose the battle, just don’t lose the war.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, there are people that care and resources that can help. Contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or dial 988. You are not alone.

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love from d3
3 months ago

As a college swimmer with a similar story but a much smaller audience for it, it’s tough to tell people and I think he’s incredibly strong for doing so. I appreciate SwimSwam for pushing his message as well. One thing he says that a lot of people don’t realize is that the time between realizing you don’t want to die, you just want to feel fulfilled and happy, and when you actually do start to feel better can seem long and hard. It seems like he’s starting to turn the corner and I hope that he and others in his position are able to get to that place. Stay strong guys (and it’s okay to ask for help) 🙂

Swim fast
3 months ago

What an impactful article. Thank you for sharing such a personal yet important issue. Between the pandemic, being so far from home, & the pressure of swimming at that level was too much to handle. Those of us surrounding athletes at that level need to make sure the athlete knows they are so much more than their sport and that they are loved no matter what happens. And coaches promoting healthy mental health is so important-not “take a week off”.

Former swimmer
3 months ago

What a brave young man. The pandemic and social media etc were/are such stressors on young people.

3 months ago

Very difficult read but absolutely worth it. The courage it takes to move away from the security that is your family to the other side of the world to fulfill a dream is immense and not to be underestimated. This does however, highlight the enormous role that the university athletic department is accepting when they take on an international athlete, they really need to have the right and complete support networks in place for these athletes to continue to thrive both athletically and emotionally away from their blood families.

May the war continue to be won by this outstanding young man.

3 months ago

His story, and ones like it, 100% save lives

3 months ago

Great Human

3 months ago

Kinda wild to me that the coaches gave him a week off instead of just telling him to come back when and if he’s ready…

3 months ago

Thank you so much for sharing this difficult-to-read, but important story. I’m so glad he is in a better place now, and commend him for opening up about his heartbreaking experiences. This story alone WILL contribute to saving one life or more.

Looking at the Louisville coaches (and I hesitate to post anything negative on this article, but the coach-athlete relationship is also so relevant, important to address here)….I can’t help but think much less of them now…

“The UofL coaches told him to take a week off and return to practice the next week” Really? Even after the suicide attempt, and psychiatric hospital stay (and wasn’t this in the Spring?), only 1 week off!? You think coaches would… Read more »