Why this California lifeguard is swimming for Syria in the Olympics

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Azad al-Barazi lives in Venice, loves to surf and has worked as a lifeguard on LA’s beaches for the past nine years. On Saturday he’ll take on a different role – an Olympian swimming for Syria.

A duel Syria – US citizen, he was born in Saudi Arabia and grew up in the US. He said he always dreamed of being an Olympian, but the US team was out of reach.


His journey to Rio started in 2010 when his parents took him to see his grandmother in their home country of Syria.

“I was swimming in the Olympic training center in Latakia, which is where my mom is from and some guy was watching me. He stopped me in the middle of practice and was ‘Like where are you from?’  We don’t have creatures like you here,’” said al-Barazi.

A few days later, he was meeting with the Olympic committee in Damascus and in 2012, he swam the 100 meter breaststroke in the summer Olympics in London as a member of the Syrian team. He didn’t advance out of his heat.

Since then, of course, Syria has been consumed by civil war.

The war has complicated al-Barazi’s feelings about representing his parents’ homeland. He’s made a symbolic gesture of designing his own swim apparel that doesn’t include the Syrian flag.

“I want people to know that I am still swimming for Syria, like everything says Syria on it; but, there’s no flag. There’s no sign that I’m taking either one side or another. I’m here just to represent the people of Syria,” he said.

Al-Barazi does not get any funding from Syria, so he teaches surfing and swimming, repairs surfboards, and works as an LA County lifeguard to pay for his training and travel.

“Every time you hear Syria in the news, it’s a negative, negative, negative. When I have these L.A. county lifeguards supporting me and saying ‘go Syria, go Syria,’ it definitely pushes me to do better,” said al-Barazi. “I’m not only representing the country, I’m representing Venice and the L.A. County lifeguard community.”

The road to Rio has been a long one for al-Barazi. He’s even showed up at international meets to find out Syria has been banned from participating. But the obstacles seem to fuel him more and he hopes he is a symbol of endurance for those watching.

“When I’m stepping off the blocks, I want people all over the world to know there’s a Syrian swimmer competing at a high level,” he said. “When I’m diving in, I want to inspire the next generations of Syrians, because that’s what’s going to make Syria a better country again.”

Listen to Azad al-Barazi’s story: