Swimming News / Swimming Feature courtesy of Karl Ortegon
Anyone can probably tell you who Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are. It’s impossible to overlook, however, that many big names in swimming, including their stories, stay buried within the swimming community. Azad Al-Barazi’s story is inspirational and speaks to the dedication, determination, and adaptability needed to be a successful swimmer at any level. I was able to ask him a few questions about his life and how he got to where he is now.
Al-Barazi is Syrian, although he was born in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia as well as its largest city. After moving to the US in the summer of 1996 at just eight years of age, the future Olympian started out swimming summer league. “My parents put us in all kinds of sports during the summer to stay active and out of trouble,” said Al-Barazi, “… I never thought I would take it to this level.” He focused more and more on the sport as he entered high school, and breaststroke developed into his strength. Eager to improve his swimming as well as get his education, Al-Barazi enrolled at Santa Monica Community College and then transferred to the University of Hawaii.
After his senior year in college, Al-Barazi, looking back on his incredible transformation into an elite breaststroker, decided he wanted to represent his country of Syria. He attributes being raised in Los Angeles to his joining the Trojan Swim Club, one of the hottest training groups in the world for post-grad, Olympic-caliber swimmers. “I was like a little kid in a candy store… I look to my left, and I see Kosuke Kitajima and Thiago Pereira. Looking to my right, I see Rebecca Soni and Jessica Hardy. It was the super star team at Trojan Swim Club, I felt like a little fish in the big pool,” said Al-Barazi, who admits that Soni and Hardy, the best female 100m breaststrokers in American history, have beaten him in breaststroke sets before. “I looked at it as getting beat by the best, so that didn’t really matter to me.”
Al-Barazi then reached out to the Syrian Olympic Committee, looking to represent his home country in international competition. He was able to finally swim for Syria at the 2012 London Olympics, although he did not qualify past the heats. After the Olympics, though, he couldn’t get a hold of the Syrian Olympic Committee. He had lost his funding, as well as his ability to swim for Syria. It was all gone. “Right before the Olympics is when the civil war started. I didn’t think it would lead to what it got to now,” states Al-Barazi.
“That got me thinking that swimming isn’t everything. There’s more to life than swimming. I still wanted to swim, and the only reason why is for the Syrian people, for the 140,000 plus people that died, 7,000 of them children. For the economic losses and for the 3 million homes destroyed. I’m swimming for them to give them hope, to give something back to Syria.”
Two years after the London Games, Al-Barazi is still trying to figure out how he can swim for his country. He recently competed at the Santa Clara stop of the Arena Grand Prix, going 1:02.62 in the 100 breast and tying Nic Fink, one of America’s top breaststrokers, for 6th place in a star-studded final. He plans to compete at US Nationals later this summer, and travel to the Middle East for the first two FINA World Cup stops. “The big meet this year is short course Worlds (World Championships) in Doha, and that’s the meet I want to shine at.”
Azad Al-Barazi has come a long way. Going 1:04 in the 100-yard breaststroke at 18, to now holding a personal record of 1:01.83 in the 100-meter breaststroke.
He continues his struggle to represent Syria, to somehow fuel hope to his people who are crippled in civil war. He embodies what it means to be a swimmer, overcoming his obstacles and uncovering his potential along the way. In the United States, we don’t have to go through the troubles and let downs that swimmers in other countries might have to in order to represent our home. We have to take a moment, step back, and look at the big picture. The swimming community is not limited to Americans, we are a worldwide force. Al-Barazi’s story is one of many, and his determination to keep doing what he loves is exemplary.
Despite years of hardship, Al-Barazi finds his place as a lifeguard in Venice Beach as well as shaping surf boards and hand paddles.
Al-Barazi on Instagram: @eza_surf.
Al-Barazi on Twitter: @azadalbarazi