BEIRUT: The opening days of the Pan Arab Games held in Doha last month left a bad impression of Lebanon’s ability to compete as its pocket remained empty of gold.
That was until swimmer Katya Bachrouche took to the pool. Bachrouche blew away all competition as she successfully brought the joy back home when she earned four gold medals along with two bronze medals.
The story of Bachrouche, who had never visited Lebanon before the summer of 2011, began when she graduated from Virginia Cavaliers College in the United States, where she studied for four years, and led her to four Atlantic Coast Conference swimming championships. Bachrouche had at first thought of retiring, as most college athletes do after graduation, but her Lebanese lineage on her father’s side revived her hope of chasing her dream.
Bachrouche’s name wasn’t initially included in the Lebanese squad for Doha, but luckily it was added after arduous efforts by many people who believed her talent could win medals for the country. From there the story of success began.
Bachrouche spoke to The Daily Star’s Sports Weekly for the first time since the end of the Pan Arab Games.
“I learned how to swim starting when I was 3 years old. I started on a swim team when I was 6 years old. I continued swimming all the way through high school and then college, where I swam four years at the University of Virginia” she said.
“My path to representing Lebanon led me to a lot of different people. Last summer I signed with the Al-Jazeera swim club, thanks Moustafa Baghdadi, and I also connected with Nadeem Zein Eddin at the Lebanese American University, who signed me up to swim in the World University Games in Shenzhen, China last summer. I returned to Lebanon in September for the Lebanese championships, where I met Wafii Hamden, who helped me so much. He connected me with Tony Khoury of the Lebanese Olympic Committee.
“From there I worked with Wafii, Tony and the Al-Jazeera Swim Club to get me to Doha. I was never really aware that I wasn’t originally signed up. My father, who has also been my manager, worked diligently to make all the arrangements. If there were any problems or confusions regarding my name being included or not, I did not find out until after I got to Doha. I thank my father a lot for working so hard. My experience in Doha was something I will remember forever.”
Bachrouche brought home four gold medals – in the 200-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle, 800-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medleys – but the greatest reward came after the Pan Arab Games when she learned that her times ensured her qualification for the London Olympics next summer.
“To prepare for the Olympics I will continue training as I always do. I currently train at my university in Virginia, but I am planning on training in California or Florida for a while to train with other swimmers who are preparing for the Olympics.
“I practice 10 times a week with a very high level of intensity and focus. I spend just as much time focusing on my recovery and health. So far, this year has been my best training year ever which was reflected partially in Doha and inshallah [God willing] even more in London.
“As far as what I ask of the Lebanese state and Olympic Committee, I want to thank them first for everything they have done for me. I wouldn’t be able to compete without them. I do not know yet what exactly the state and Olympic committee is able to provide for me, I suppose that is something we will have to discuss in the near future. But if anything else, I am so thankful just for the opportunity to represent Lebanon.”
Bachrouche earned half of Lebanon’s total gold medals at Doha, and she was the only Lebanese athlete to stand on the podium more than three times.
“I was so proud to be able to get four gold medals for Lebanon. Just one medal would have been amazing but to get four brought a lot of attention to the country of Lebanon during a time when countries like Egypt and Tunisia were having so much success.
“This made me most proud to show that Lebanon is just as talented and competitive as the rest of the countries. I was so happy to win all of those medals not just for myself, but even more for the country of Lebanon that has been so supportive of me and has provided me with this wonderful opportunity,” explained Bachrouche.
The swimmer said it was interesting that seven out of Lebanon’s eight gold medals earned at the Pan Arab Games were won by female athletes.
“I definitely agree that the women’s sports in the Arab world are still developing. I think this about men’s sports too actually. This has a lot to do with conservative societies but also has a lot to do with resources – like financial support and facilities and coaches. Within the Arab world there are women like myself who are Muslim but have chosen to follow the religion in a way that allows them to participate in sports. It is a personal choice and nobody should feel the need to compromise themselves and their religious beliefs for the sake of athletic achievement.
“For both men’s and women’s sports, being competitive with the rest of the world comes down to the resources,” Bachrouche said. “Many athletes from the Arab world, at least in swimming, eventually train outside of their home countries to prepare for the highest level of competition. Without the money to fund athletic programs [not just the facilities] that can compete with what countries like the U.S. and France and other athletically developed countries [have], the Arab world will face a much slower pattern of development.
“Not to say that we aren’t making progress, however. Even if the athletes were training outside of their countries, I was so impressed with the talent and the high level of competition at the Arab Games and I think it speaks a lot to the progress we, as an Arab people, are making in the world of sports. Doha was important because it showed the rest of the world that the Arab world is competitive and is on its way to being just as athletically powerful as the rest of the world.
“One thing that was very special to see in Doha was women playing sports like basketball and volleyball and still wearing the hijab. It was amazing to see that there is a way to compete and stay devoted to one’s religious beliefs. There is a way to compromise and these women were the perfect examples. I can’t explain how happy that made me feel,” she added.
Talking about her intention to retire after college graduation, Bachrouche said she never felt right about the decision.
“Before I made the connection with Lebanon for swimming, I didn’t know what other options I had other than retiring. Having dual citizenship, I had always thought about swimming for Lebanon, but didn’t know how to get started. When my last year in college began, I seriously wanted to explore that possibility. I was still improving in swimming and I knew that there was more for me to accomplish in the sport before I retired. I am so thankful to have finally connected with Lebanon. My performance in Doha was a huge improvement from my earlier performances in those events and it makes me even more excited to see how well I can do in the future.
“I can’t thank ... Lebanon enough for all of the support I have been given so far. I am so proud to have Lebanese blood running through my veins.
“I want to encourage anybody and everybody who has dreams of being an athlete to pursue those dreams no matter how successful they are. I hope that someday soon there will be other Lebanese swimmers who can achieve even more than I did at the Arab Games and in other competitions as well.”