Feb. 19, 2015
By Jackson Filyo, Media Relations Student Assistant
NOTE: In his SEC Championship debut, Arkram Mahmoud set a school-record of 4:15.11 in the 500 freestyle, finishing fourth overall. Mahmoud also swam on South Carolina’s fifth-place 800 freestyle relay team that recorded a NCAA automatic qualifying time, which ranks second in school history.
For Akram Mahmoud, swimming came naturally and, at a young age, he and his family knew of his potential in the pool. Fast forward several years and, like many his age, the Cairo, Egypt native was choosing between colleges, weighing the pros and cons of each, hoping to springboard his development athletically, educationally, culturally and more importantly, find a place to call home. Unlike most prospective college students, however, Akram was a highly coveted recruit deciding between universities an entire ocean away from home.
“I sent my associate head coach, Jason Memont, over to watch him,” South Carolina head coach McGee Moody said. “Within 48 hours I got an email saying, `We’ve got to get this kid here. We’ve got to get him here.'”
Akram knew of his own potential and knew that to achieve his lofty goals, the long transitional process was one that had to be embraced. An accomplished swimmer for his age, having competed at the national level prior to turning 18, Akram was a standout, especially in distance races.
“[He has] the ability to just keep going and going and going,” Moody said. “He can hit a pace and hold it. He swims in a way that, the longer the race, the faster he gets, which is very unusual. When other swimmers start to break and get tired, he shifts into his final gear and can just leave people behind.”
Akram knew he wanted to come to America and was pursued heavily by a number of schools across the country. Having garnered attention from Auburn, Michigan and Missouri, Mahmoud made the decision to enroll at South Carolina.
“I see it as one of the best universities in the States,” Akram said of the university. “It has the best coaches, best swimmers and I see myself, after four years, being successful coming from here.”
Like most children, Akram began swimming for fun. Initially, his parents encouraged him to swim, and as he did, he discovered his own sense of enjoyment. During the summer, Akram and his family would go on vacation or to the pool and he loved nothing more than spending his time in the water. As years passed, those around him took notice of his swimming ability and opened his eyes to competitive swimming.
“When I was young, people told me I was talented and pushed me to love the sport,” Akram said.
He first began competitive swimming at age 11 and found success immediately. Within a year, Akram medaled for the first time, taking gold in the 50 and 100 butterfly.
The one consistency for Akram, at this stage, was his success. From age 11 to 17, he underwent a coaching change every two years. He noted that the coaching changes were not difficult for him and that he enjoyed working with all of them. He kept a positive attitude, and kept winning.
Around age 17, colleges began to take note of Akram’s results. Those who knew of his ability did everything they could to get overseas to watch him swim.
“It’s not easy to get over to Egypt,” Moody noted. “Within our recruiting budget, we have to manage how we go to see those guys swim. We did, to be honest, get a chance to see him more than most international student-athletes because he was so good. Because he was so fast, we wanted to make sure we had a chance to see him race whenever we could.”
The recruitment of all international student-athletes comes with a distinct set of challenges. Whether it be language barrier, time difference or simply the discrepancies in culture, coaches must be prepared to make unique accommodations to pitch their university to a prospective student-athlete.
Universities’ pursuit of Akram presented a far greater set of challenges. As Akram was making his decision between schools, his home country of Egypt was in the middle of severe political conflict. Civilian protest against the Egyptian government was met with military force, converting generally communal locations into areas of great danger, restricting a number of standard operations, including travel.
“One of our biggest concerns over there was the unrest that was going on in Egypt through the recruiting process,” Moody said. “He was in a pretty dangerous area for awhile. The concern with those guys is if they come over here or if they fly back home, they may close those borders rather quickly. Every time they go home, you have to be concerned about when they would be able to come back.”
Through the turmoil in his home country, Akram remained focused on his goals. He put his home in the past and made the decision to attend South Carolina. Akram first set foot in America on Dec. 26, 2014 at the age of 18.
“I’m a hard worker and I want to achieve my goals,” Akram said. “I have passion and I will never let myself down.”
Such an attitude will serve Akram well in competition, but the biggest challenges he would face still remained, most of which would be crossed outside the pool. Socially and culturally, life in the United States was something unlike Akram had ever experienced. The language barrier was enormous, the academic structures in Egypt and the United States had little to no similarities and the pressure was as high as he had ever faced. Furthermore, Akram made his transition in January and was not granted the liberty of a gradual assimilation with his fellow freshmen.
“I think the biggest thing for him is figuring out the routine,” Moody said. “Knowing where to go, when to be there. He came in mid-year so it’s not like he had the first few weeks to learn with all the other freshmen. Him coming in mid-year is entirely different from everyone else.”
Akram has adjusted well, making friends and working hard in his classes. Since joining the Gamecocks, he has befriended Marwan El Kamash, a junior swimmer hailing from Alexandria, Egypt. Marwan blazed a trail for Akram and was one of the primary factors in his decision to attend the University. From the moment Akram touched down in Columbia, Marwan has served as a mentor and friend to the newcomer. Whether through academics or social assimilation, Marwan has “made everything easier,” as Akram put it.
Through all the challenges presented with his transition, Akram has, to no surprise, found respite in swimming. In his first meet with the Gamecocks, Akram finished second in the 500 freestyle, posting a time of 4:29.81, and third in the 200 butterfly, finishing in 1:50.94.
With his first meet behind him, Akram’s recent performances have shown perhaps, a glimpse into the future, a flash of brilliance depicting just how great he has the potential to be. Against Duke and Harvard, Akram finished first in the 1000 freestyle (9:13.50), second in the 500 freestyle (4:30.69) and fourth in the 200 butterfly (1:51.93). A week later against Missouri, he improved upon those times, finishing the 500 freestyle in 4:27.46, good for second place, and the 1000 freestyle in 9:11.74, good for first place. Just one week later, Akram showed off his acclaimed distance skills by setting the school record for the mile, finishing in 14:58.72.
Despite finding himself at the center of a rotating cycle of coaches throughout his childhood, Akram recognizes the importance of his mentors and is quick to deflect praise and acknowledgment their way.
“[Coach Moody] has helped me so much,” Akram said. “He made this process so easy, he and Coach Kevin [Swander]. They helped me so much in my transition.”
Moody, however, reciprocates the praise.
“He is one of the quietest, most fierce competitors I have ever seen,” Moody said. “He doesn’t talk much, he’s a very quiet kid, but he’s brutally competitive and hates to lose. That’s a pretty good combination to have.”
Akram is aware of the opportunity in front of him and, despite his generally quiet demeanor, displays little reserve when setting goals for himself. He hopes to leave a legacy at South Carolina unlike any before him.
“I want to have more than school records,” Akram said. “I hope to be in the finals of the Olympic games in 2016. I have to get a medal before I graduate from South Carolina.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a doubter on the team or the coaching staff. Moody, who is in his eighth season as coach of the Gamecocks, recognizes the significance of the goals Akram has set for himself. In their many post-practice conversations, Akram shared a countless amount of goals and expectations with his coach, ranging from school records to those of the Olympic podium. None, however, are too lofty to achieve, in Moody’s eyes.
“I’ve watched this young man swim and I absolutely believe he can do it,” Moody said.
Akram’s greatest impact cannot be quantified by medals or trophies, record books or a stopwatch, but rather, within the core of the program. Akram’s presence alone raises the standard for the rest of the team, swimmers and coaches alike.
“If you have a student-athlete with goals that high and they are that driven, as a coach, you have to make sure you are providing him with the environment that is going to help him reach his potential,” Moody said. “If you don’t, then you are failing him as an athlete. He’s putting it out there and saying `I’ll do whatever it takes. You tell me what’s going to win me that gold and I’m going to do it.’ Our coaching staff has to put him in that environment where the expectation is a gold medal.”
Akram Mahmoud has done his part to raise the standard for South Carolina swimming. Those that know him have high expectations. His are higher. Akram’s approach to his craft, combined with his raw ability, pave the way for a golden future for him and the rest of South Carolina swimming.
“As we go through the next 18 months here, everyone in Columbia will see it,” Moody said. “He said it since day one, he wants to medal. He’s probably taken it a step further. In 2020, I think he could potentially be the best distance swimmer in the world.”