SIU architecture student Mazen Aziz will be one of only 25 open-water swimmers competing in the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the only one representing his strife-torn home country of Egypt.
Aziz, of Cairo, will swim a 10-kilometer marathon, or 6.2 miles. He battled through a knee injury in April to become one of only two swimmers from Egypt to advance from the FINA Open Water Swimming Grand Prix in Cancun, Mexico, to last weekend’s FINA Olympic Marathon Swim Qualifier in Setubal, Portugal.
Aziz quite literally stumbled into the sport at just 4 years old. As he watched his two older brothers practice swimming in an outdoor pool one winter day, he slipped and fell in the water. Unable to swim, he was rescued by his father, who happened to see him splashing from a distance. This first icy dip in the water left him sick for two weeks. After that, he announced he was ready to learn to swim.
After a few lessons in the Mediterranean Sea, his private coach told him he should apply to the local swim club. The club’s coach opened Aziz’s eyes to the first challenge of his career.
“I was fat,” Aziz says with a chuckle.
After shedding some weight, he was allowed to join the club as its youngest member. By age 8, he ranked seventh nationally. By 14, then a distance swimmer, he was ranked third in his age group in all of Egypt.
After winning competition after national competition, Aziz made his first bid for the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing. He recalls it as the most crushing day of his swimming career. The disappointment of not qualifying almost caused him to quit swimming altogether. Encouragement from his loved ones eventually shook him out of his month-long hiatus from the sport.
“It’s a good thing that I have awesome parents and friends who told me, ‘Swim. You still have a lot to do,’” he says.
Aziz chose to study in Carbondale after meeting world-renowned swimming and diving coach Rick Walker at the 2009 World Championships in Rome. After a single meeting, Walker convinced Aziz that he should relocate to the United States and further develop his skills in SIU’s swimming program.
“I gave it a shot and I’m happy I did,” Aziz says.
Walker says he knew “right off the bat” that Aziz was bound for success in the pool.
“A coach can identify talent even before an athlete does,” Walker says. “Sometimes we recognize excellence before that athlete has become excellent. The biggest battle is trying to get them to go along with your beliefs, keeping them positive and consistent.”
Walker’s battle to convince his swimmer of his own potential was little compared to the hurdles they would face out of the water.
Aziz is double-majoring in architectural studies and interior design. The combination of academics and preparing for the Olympics proved to be even more challenging than he anticipated.
“I was told architecture and swimming are just two too difficult things to do at the same time,” Aziz says. “I just kept saying, ‘I can do both, I can handle it.’ When I started, I wished I didn’t say that.”
“He was in trouble,” Walker recalls. “A lot of professors would’ve turned their backs on him. Ours didn’t. They stuck by him and they held him to a standard very similar to what I hold him to in the pool. They can share in his success because if he doesn’t have school, he certainly doesn’t have swimming. And now what we have is a success story in the classroom and in the pool, and anyone who knows him knows what a miracle that really was. Mazen is a lucky man.”
Walter Wendler, a professor and director of the School of Architecture who personally advised Aziz through his scholastic setbacks, says the self-discipline that drives all student-athletes directly influenced Aziz’s academic comeback.
“He’s applied some of that same kind of discipline to the study of architecture, which likewise requires a good deal of personal discipline because it’s project work,” Wendler says. “It’s a difficult thing to do, and I think it takes a special person to be able to balance the demands of team or individual sports with the discipline and study of architecture.”
Aziz credits his success to the support from his academic advisers, professors and peers coupled with unwavering motivation from Walker.
“A lot of people will say a coach just needs to give you good practices, but I think the motivation I get from Rick is the most important. It comes before everything,” Aziz says. “We had a really hard time, first my schoolwork and then my shoulder, my knee, my shoulder again. I think if I was my coach I would just give up, I was giving him so much trouble. But he was just always motivating me. Even when I wasn’t swimming great, he was there telling me, ‘Hey, something inside you is there, ready.’”
Far more daunting than his repeated injuries or even the burden of heavy coursework, Aziz has also struggled to maintain focus due to the monumental social and political turmoil surrounding his family and friends back home in Egypt during his time in Carbondale.
“It was really bad timing because when the revolution started last year, it was right before our conference,” Aziz says. “It was just so stressful because I didn’t know what happened to my parents and my brothers, if they were safe or not. I was always worried about what was going on. It was a big distraction for sure.”
Aziz was haunted not only by concerns about the immediate safety of his loved ones during Egypt’s revolution and election last weekend, but also by a painful sense of separation from his fellow Egyptians during such a significant turning point in their nation’s history.
“That’s the country I grew up in,” Aziz says. “Like any other Egyptian, I just wish I was there with them, participating in the revolution. But if I did something good in the Olympics, it would be for them. I would feel like I contributed something to Egypt.”
Aziz is one of three Saluki student swimmers who will compete in the Olympic Games in London this year. Pamela Benitez, a freshman from El Salvador, and Csaba Gercsak, a sophomore from Hungary, also will represent their respective countries. Aziz’s open-water race will take place Aug. 10.