Swimming for Syria: Icon of Hope at the 2016 Olympics

Representing your country at the Olympics is an incredible accomplishment for an athlete, but when your country is torn apart by war, making it this far is not only a personal victory, but also a strong message of hope for the country.

We continue our #SweatClean series with Azad Al-Barazi, a 28 year old Syrian-American Olympic swimmer, who will represent the people of Syria at the 2016 Olympics in Rio this August.

This will not be the first time Azad has been to the Olympics. In 2012, Azad competed in the 100-meter breaststroke. At the time he was funded by the Syrian government.

Now he still represents the country of Syria, but voluntarily. Azad has been self-funded since 2012 after he received notice from the Syrian government that they would no longer be able to fund his training. Now he swims in solidarity with the people of Syria and their war-ravaged country.

Waiakea: What’s your goal for this year’s Olympics?

Azad: My goal is to swim in the finals and earn a medal. I’ve already made it to the Olympics once before, but qualifying for a second time was just as challenging, if not harder. It’s funny because making it to the Olympics wasn't a question or option for me. I knew I had to make it no matter what.

W: What would you attribute your performance and perseverance to? What kept you in the water?

A: Being an athlete, you cannot do it all by yourself. You need your teammates, family, and coaches. But I think the main fuel for me has been the civil war in Syria.

W: Funding your training for the last four years has undoubtedly been a serious commitment. What did you learn from that experience and do you think it helped you grow as an athlete and person?

A: I have a lot of teammates who only swim, eat, and sleep. I don’t think I could do just that. Even if I were funded, I would still be working on the side, lifeguarding, teaching surfing and swimming lessons, making handboards. Hustling has really taught me how to be disciplined and organized, which I think will help me down the road after swimming.

W: What would you say has been the main factor in motivating you to continue to compete despite not having funding?

A: Seeing refuge kids having to leave their homes, leaving their lives behind and crossing through dangerous borders… All of that makes me push harder. Am I really in pain? Am I really hurting as badly as they are? The answer is always no.

I’m very fortunate to be living in the U.S. and I am grateful my parents were able to move here.

By swimming for Syria, I hope to spread the message that this next generation of Syrians can represent Syria in any way they choose, without being defined by war and wreckage. I think a medal at the Olympics would be a strong symbol of that.

W: Have you ever faced any prejudice as a Syrian born-American?

A: Not directly, but hearing people talk about Syria is interesting. Over Christmas I overheard a couple talking on their way to the post office. Venice had recently stopped collecting mail and so those living in the neighborhood had to drop it off at the local post office. The wife was complaining and saying that, “the reason why Venice has to do this is because the U.S. is letting all of those Syrian refugees in and they might plant a bomb in our mailboxes.” I stopped and said to the woman, “well I’m Syrian”. The couple turned red and quickly said they were kidding, that they didn’t blame the Syrians.

All I want is to get my story out there: I’m a swimmer and surfer, both white dominant sports, and I work as a lifeguard, a white dominant job. I want to break stereotypes.

W: Do you think being an athlete has taught you any valuable lessons that translate into your personal life? If so, what?

A: Nothing is going to just be given to you. If life was easy, then we would all be a bunch of robots with no individuality. I think struggling and working hard builds you as a person; it makes you feel accomplished, and that feels good. We’re humans, we want to feel accomplished.

Failing is probably the best thing an athlete can do. Every time I fail and fall down, I come back stronger. Growing as a person is a part of life, and learning how to get through the obstacles.

W: Apart from swimming, what workout routine do you follow to prepare for August?

A: I lift three times a week. Did you know that you only pull ten pounds of force (no more, no less) when you’re swimming in the water? So weight lifting can give you that advantage. I also do yoga tw