Cal swimmer Farida Osman, who hopes to represent her native Egypt in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, practices at the Spieker Aquatics Complex on the UC Berkeley campus in Berkeley, CA Thursday, June 16, 2016.
Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle
She is the most famous swimmer in her country. She’s a bubbly, engaging personality. She swims for Cal. She’s heading to the Rio Olympics.
Nope, not that one. Meet Farida Osman, the lone female member of Egypt’s Olympic swim team. The Missy Franklin of Egypt.
“Swimming with Missy inspired me to be a better, faster swimmer,” Osman said of her good friend and former teammate.
Osman, 21, is headed to her second Olympics next month. The training for Rio has been much calmer than her preparation for London. For three years, she has been swimming at Cal under the tutelage of coach Teri McKeever, knowing for a year that she qualified for the Olympics in the 50-meter freestyle and 100 butterfly.
Four years ago, Osman had no idea she was headed to London. Her training had been in chaos after the Arab Spring threw Egypt into turmoil in 2011. Her foreign-born coach had left the country during the unrest. Her school was closed for a time. The Internet was cut off. And the 7 p.m. curfew on weekdays made it very difficult for her to complete her training.
“It was an experience I will remember forever,” Osman said. “Going to Tahrir Square to march in the riots. My parents wanted me to be aware of what was going on. I learned a lot from watching others fighting for what they wanted.”
Cal swimmer Farida Osman, right, who hopes to represent her native Egypt in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, does a handstand with post graduate swimmer Dana Vollmer as they practices with their swim team at the Spieker Aquatics Complex on the UC Berkeley campus in Berkeley, CA Thursday, June 16, 2016.
Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle
Osman continued to train through the country’s unrest, won gold at the 2011 world junior championships and posted a “B” qualification time that meant she was in a group of athletes who could be included in the London Games. But she didn’t learn she would be going to London until two weeks before the Opening Ceremony. She and a male athlete were Egypt’s entire swim team.
“I was just going for the experience,” she said. “This time will be so much different. I have so much more confidence in my swimming. My goal is to make the finals.”
Osman’s older brother Ahmed studied industrial engineering at Cal and her parents — both dentists — were familiar with Berkeley.
Osman was already interested in swimming at Cal before the London Olympics and got to know McKeever — who was head coach of the 2012 U.S. women’s team — during the Games. A year later, Osman arrived in Berkeley.
“It was sort of scary — a different continent, a different system,” she said. “I was nervous, but I knew it was the best place to be. The first year was definitely the hardest, having never been on a team so competitive. But once I adjusted, it was so worth it.”
And a funny thing happened to the Cal team. Everywhere the Bears went to compete, they were greeted by a large contingent of Egyptians, rooting hard for Osman.
“She’s incredibly huge in Egypt,” McKeever said. “We can go to a meet anywhere in the country and there will be Egyptians. They cheer for her. They ask her to come to dinner. She’s clearly an inspiration.”
Osman’s own role model was Rania Elwani, an Egyptian swimmer who swam at SMU and competed in the 1992, ’96 and 2000 Olympics. Osman loves the support, especially the young girls who come to see her with big homemade posters proclaiming, “Go Farida!”
“I think I can be a role model,” she said. “When I go home, I see how their training goals are higher. I talk to them about my journey. I know they’re watching me and see that I’m excelling.”
Egypt is more moderate than many Middle Eastern countries. Osman dresses conservatively, but doesn’t cover her head. She has a tattoo of the Olympic rings on her back. If she receives criticism for competing in a sport wearing a swimsuit, she doesn’t hear it.
“Egypt is not as extreme, so I haven’t experienced difficulties,” she said. “My parents are so supportive, and they may have tried to protect me from that.
“I feel like female athletes in the Middle Eastern world are starting to get better and break the idea that just male athletes are the ones performing.”
Osman came from a highly politicized world in Cairo to Cal, a place where politics have always mattered. But she tries to shut out the anti-Muslim rhetoric that currently courses through American debate, and is disheartened by acts of terrorism linked to her religion.
“It’s not an issue on our team,” she said. “I feel like I’m safe here in Berkeley. Being Muslim, it makes me so sad how people can generalize. That is not what our religion is about.”
Osman fits prayer into her schedule. Because of training, she couldn’t fast during Ramadan last month, though she tried to do good deeds as compensation. Though Osman feels safe in the United States, she’s seen firsthand how she can be targeted. Her brother, who now works as an engineer in London, is often singled out at airports.
“He’s 25, male, has an Egyptian name,” she said. “He experiences more stuff than I do.”
McKeever said her swimmers don’t talk much about politics, but are keenly aware of Osman’s power as a role model.
“We talk a lot about being a strong, competitive female,” McKeever said.
This time, there are five Egyptian swimmers who will head to the Olympics to compete. But still just one woman.
“We still need to make some strides,” said Osman, the one leading the way.
Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @annkillion