Still in the water
Egypt's greatest swimmer before she retired, Rania Elwani's love affair with water continues -- but there has been a career change. Nashwa Abdel-Tawab talks to the gold fish who has a new wish
It is not easy being Rania Elwani and it is certainly not easy keeping up with her. One of the world's fastest short-distance swimmers until she retired two years ago, Elwani has kept up her torrid pace on land as well. Meeting her can be a small miracle, so packed is her schedule. The day begins at 6am with rowing, followed by classes at the Faculty of Medicine at Misr University for Science and Technology, lunch at home, hitting the books, some more training, more classes, working at her new job in the International Olympic Committee and, finally, bedtime. Time off to call her friends and visit relatives has become a luxury.
Our "miracle meeting" took place on the Nile where Elwani has taken rowing so seriously that her goal is to make the Olympic team. Elwani, who spent 17 years plying the waters as an Olympic swimmer, was born to race in water and, even though she retired from the sport and donned the scarf, she has returned to her element all over again. There is a bond with water that even she cannot explain. "I don't know what's the reason behind choosing rowing as a replacement for swimming," Elwani said. "It came naturally. I stopped swimming after the Sydney Olympics and took up rowing eight months later. I am a sportswoman. Sports is in my genes. I wake up early to play sports and it seems that rowing is a natural shift for me and, of course, it entails water."
Elwani took up rowing for fun at first, but by time and after hearing her competitive spirit calling, she decided to go one step further and take it seriously. Seriously means training two hours in the morning, two hours in the evening and one hour of fitness practice -- and hoping to make the 2004 Greece Games.
As when she was an Olympic swimmer, she has hired a woman coach for her rowing, Olga Stydova, an ex-world champion from the Ukraine. "I've got the endurance and Olga's got the technique, and I'm rowing hard."
Can Elwani become an established rower? She admits that there is no comparison between swimming and rowing. While she may have the endurance of a rower -- in swimming, Elwani put in roughly five hours a day in training plus rough endurance sessions -- the techniques in both sports are oceans apart.
"It's hard to imagine winning the African Rowing Championship in September (which would book a ticket to the Olympics) with only one year's worth of rowing. With no experience or time, it's doubtful."
Still, in her skiff, she takes on the Nile waters with fierce determination, the kind that made her a swimming sensation. Though she did not win a medal in the three Olympic Games she entered, Elwani's feats are immense all the same. In Sydney, she took 11th place in the 50-metre freestyle and 16th in the 100m freestyle, the best Arab achievements ever. At one time, she was ninth in the world in 50 metres and 10th in the 100.
However, it was at the regional level that Elwani had her finest moments, starting with the 1991 All-Africa Games in Egypt where she exploded on the national scene at age 13, collecting nine medals, including four gold. In the 1995 All-Africa Games she won three gold medals and in the more challenging Mediterranean Games in Bari in 1997 she garnered two gold and one silver. Her amazing performance in the 1997 Arab Games in Beirut, where she hauled in nine gold medals and two silver, was somehow bested in Amman two years later when she struck gold -- incredibly -- 11 times.
Elwani's prodigal pool showings helped get her selected last month to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), one of only 15 athletes so honoured. At only 23, she has thus become the first Egyptian woman to enter the IOC and only the second Egyptian to do so, following Munir Thabet, president of the Egyptian Olympic Committee.
At IOC headquarters in Lausanne, she was given her first task, that of how to combat drugs in sports and run an Olympics.
Her IOC membership lasts for eight years during which Elwani, going by her history, will prove an excellent ambassador for Egypt. She is a straight A student in college -- though she sheepishly admits to a few B's when at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
And there is that steely determination to be the best at what she does. "It took me 17 years of hard training to be the best Arab swimmer, male or female," Elwani said "If I'm going to train for rowing, I have to do it seriously. I have to organise my time and not waste it." As she goes about her daily routine, there isn't much time that can go to waste.