Given the ongoing violence in Syria and the resultant refugee crisis, Azad al-Barazi feels even more strongly that he should swim for Syria at the 2016 Rio Olympics in August. But as with his decision to represent Syria at the London Games in 2012, the 28-year-old breaststroker feels it is increasingly important to show solidarity with the people of Syria and carry on the storied legacy of his ancestors.
As the conflict intensifies in the country of his parents’ birth, al-Barazi — who lives in the United States and holds dual citizenship — wants to offer a symbolic gesture of strength to Syrians through competing, even if he has mixed emotions about the larger association: Although swimmers from most nations wear caps that include that country’s flag, his simply gives his name and “SYR.” Of course, he can’t control what appears on the leaderboard.
“It kind of gives me a bitter taste in my mouth when I see the Syrian flag next to my name, but I’ve gotten over it — it is what it is,” he said. “I’ve told people: ‘I’m not swimming for the president, I’m not swimming for the country — I’m swimming for the people.’ I feel like the Syrian people need to see me swimming.”
He realizes he can perhaps inspire hope in those facing turmoil.
“The way I swim, the way I represent Syria could help that future kid,” al-Barazi added. “My message — just up there, being on that block, training — could affect someone.”
A lifeguard with the Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguard Division since 2007, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound al-Barazi is a gregarious surfer dude known as “EZ-A” to his friends. But he carries a heavy responsibility that comes with his lineage.
The al-Barazi name, after all, still means something in Syria. Muhsin al-Barazi, his grandfather’s cousin, became prime minister in 1949 but was killed a month later by a firing squad during a coup d’etat that Colonel Sami al-Hinnawi instigated. Some 14 months later, Hersho al-Barazi, the swimmer’s grandfather, murdered al-Hinnawi as revenge and remained exiled in Lebanon for 20 years. The patriarch of this intellectual Kurdish-Syrian family instilled in al-Barazi an appreciation of his heritage, especially given his years of estrangement from the country.
On his family’s land, Hersho, who died at age 96 this past December, famously bred Arabian racing horses. Juan Barazi, another relative, was a noted racecar driver who competed in the Le Mans Series. There seems to be a need for speed in the family, al-Barazi said — a legacy he’s continuing in the pool.
“Maybe that whole racing mentality comes into our genetics,” al-Barazi said. “You just want it.”
Of course, al-Barazi is no stranger to Syria. While growing up in Saudi Arabia — he was born in Riyadh and raised in Jeddah — he would visit the birthplace of his parents when the family stopped in Syria on the way to vacation in the States. His father, who worked for processor companies associated with IBM, relocated the family to the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1996.
After transferring from Santa Monica College to the University of Hawaii at Manoa, al-Barazi graduated in 2010 with a degree in kinesiology, the study of human movement (one of his final papers dealt with the biomechanics of swimming strokes).
At the prodding of his college swim coach and family, he contacted the Syrian Olympic Committee about competing in London. First, he needed to become a citizen — paying a fine for a military exemption and handling paperwork while visiting his father’s hometown of Hama — then meeting with the Olympic Committee in Damascus. He enjoyed the six weeks he spent staying with family but didn’t think much about the geopolitics. Of course, times were different.
“That was before the revolution and this whole chaos that’s going on right now,” he said.
The landscape has, indeed, changed with the Syrian Civil War and the rise of ISIS. Many Syrian athletes have faced danger, injury or death. As a result, al-Barazi is careful to stay tight-lipped.
“It’s definitely tough with what’s happening right now in Syria,” he said. “I have my views, and I usually keep them to myself. The main reason why is I have family still out there. So I really got to watch everything I say, everything I do behind whoever’s around — anyone from Syria. I just don’t want any conflict. I’m on tiptoes all the time.”
After the 2012 Games, al-Barazi toyed with the idea of hanging up his Speedo for good. He took classes at Santa Monica College and UCLA’s extension program to earn the prerequisites to pursue a physician assistant master’s degree. But after 16 months, he realized he missed swimming and found that the intensifying situation in Syria compelled him to return to the pool.
He’s been training with some 30 swimmers as part of the Trojan Swim Club at Southern Cal under Coach Dave Salo and predicts half of those slogging it out with him in the pool will medal in Rio.
Monday through Saturday, he has morning practice in the pool from 7:30 to 9:30. There’s afternoon practice Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2 to 4, and he engages in a plyometric workout before or after his swimming. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday he does some high intensity weight lifting. He’s disciplined, even if he cheats on his diet with the occasional Almond Joy or “Taco Tuesday.”
He works as a lifeguard on the weekends and days he doesn’t have an afternoon pool session. In addition, he hawks hand paddles he makes from recycled surfboards under the brand name EZ-A Handboards; he has inventory in three local surf shops and sells his merchandise over social media. He also repairs surfboards and teaches swimming to make ends meet.
He’s ready to hit the sack at his Venice Beach apartment most nights at 7:30. To stay healthy, he cooks most of his meals himself — three to four a day – or, if he really needs his fix of Syrian food, he’ll head to his parents’ house 40 minutes north in Woodland Hills for some wrapped grape leaves and tabouli.
It will take continued discipline to separate himself from the pack when he competes in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke in Rio. South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh and Britain’s Adam Peaty seem to have a lock on silver and gold, but the bronze is up for grabs.
In the 100, the bronze medalist will need to clock 59.4 seconds or better, al-Barazi predicts. He’s been “double O” before, at 1:00.7, but that was in 2014. Part of the challenge for al-Barazi is his size: The breaststroke requires an accordion motion that can be taxing for someone of his stature and wingspan. Of course, it all depends on how he hits his taper before the Olympics, weaning himself off the high intensity training and letting his muscles do the work once they are more rested.
Beyond the physical exertion, it’s a psychological battle.
“Pretty much, the mental part is, ‘Are you confident enough to be on that block?’ ” al-Barazi said. “Are you confident enough to say, ‘Yes, I’m better than all these guys?’ And then when you start fatiguing, coming home, are you mentally strong enough? You have to feel mentally confident of holding that technique when you get tired.”
Bolstering that mental toughness may be his belief that he has a responsibility to the people of Syria.
“Of course, I try to keep up with the Syrian news as much as I can, and every time I read something it drives me more,” al-Barazi said. “Listen, what these guys are going through, they’re pretty much killing themselves to get across countries, to get somewhere else to have a better opportunity. And that fuels me.”
Perhaps it would be easier not to take on the responsibility, but al-Barazi is all-in to embrace his heritage and inspire others to stay strong in the face of oppression.
“I could just quit and say, ‘Eff this, I’m not swimming anymore.’ I could just be like, ‘I’m out,’ ” al-Barazi said. “But let’s say I medal at the Olympics, and these refugees that left Syria, they’re in Europe right now, and they’re watching the Olympics and they see me swimming the 100-meter breast, and they see Syria and they see my name — they’re going to have something. It’s going to affect them in some way or another.”