Sudanese Olympic backstroker Ziyad Saleem of Cal looks to leave his mark on Paris Games


BERKELEY, Calif. — As a boy in Milwaukee, Ziyad Saleem would walk through the house pretending to swim backstroke — arm circling backward along the right ear and over his shoulder, then the other arm doing the same on the left side.

Some days he would also propel both arms forward as if doing butterfly. His father saw some real potential then, even out of the water.

“I was always, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’” Mohamed Saleem recalled. “It was range of motion or trying to master how he pulls under water. I knew he was attached to it.”

The swimming bug had hit hard, and Saleem began dreaming big.

Little did Dad know this might actually lead to something that would mean so much to the family: The University of California swimmer is headed to the Paris Olympics to compete for Sudan, his parents’ home country and a place most of his relatives have now fled because of war and a massive humanitarian crisis.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling,” Mohamed Saleem said of his son representing Sudan.

Not many think about swimming and Sudan in the same breath — but it is athletes such as Saleem who are helping put the sport on the map for the country in northern Africa that has a long coastline on the Red Sea.

When Saleem won a medal five years ago in Tunisia for one of his country’s big successes in an international meet, he received royal treatment afterward.

So imagine the triumph in May when Saleem captured Sudan’s first swimming gold medal at an African Championships with victory in the 200-meter backstroke. Saleem treasured his moment atop the podium as the national anthem played — then he got to do it again after winning the 100 back.

“It’s super cool being one of the first ones to medal and really be at the top of the sport in Sudan,” Saleem said. “For me, it’s more about teaching the stuff I’ve learned in the U.S. and all the training and high-level swimming I’m able to do here and kind of take it back to Sudan. I try helping out coaches at these world championships, giving them some of the tips I learned here in the U.S., and I think that’s just the biggest thing, extending what I’ve learned in the U.S. over to Sudan and hopefully those kids can learn and become better swimmers.”

A world away from Sudan’s turmoil, Saleem relishes his new life in the diverse Bay Area swimming next to decorated U.S. Olympian Ryan Murphy in the Cal pool day after day, hour after hour, set after set.

Once in a while, Saleem can surprise Murphy and beat him during their backstroke warmups. And that’s always fun to give the gold medalist a run for his money, even if it’s just in practice and not under competition pressure.

“Sometimes, when he’s going easy in warmups, he’ll wait for the new set and really destroy me,” Saleem said with a smile.

It’s hard for Saleem to believe he’s in the water alongside a former world-record holder like Murphy. This isn’t how it was supposed to go for Saleem. He committed to Iowa only to have the Hawkeyes program get cut because of COVID-19, suddenly leaving his college career path uncertain.

“So I was left without anything, nowhere to go,” he recalled.

But when Saleem started dropping a couple of seconds in each of his events early on as a high school senior, Cal took notice. He committed without a visit or even talking to anybody on the team.

The program’s reputation and coaching told him all he needed to know. Not to mention the chance to share a pool with Murphy and so many other international greats.

“I knew it would be a place I’d really enjoy just having the world-class athletes here, a person like Murph,” Saleem said. “I learn from him so much in and out of the water, what to do, his pointers. He’s a great person to have help you. When I first got here it was really surreal just seeing him in the water. But now since I’ve grown a relationship with him it’s not faded but I still admire him a lot. He’s a big reason why I chose to come to Cal just to have a world-record holder to train with every day.”

Murphy loves swimming with Saleem, too.

“Ziyad is awesome, one of the nicest guys I’ve trained with at Cal,” Murphy said. “He’s a happy person and hard worker.”

Saleem was born in Milwaukee but holds dual citizenship, allowing him to compete for his parents’ homeland in the Olympics. Mohamed Saleem cherishes every chance to see his son compete for Sudan.

“We have a decent community here in Milwaukee. They’re very proud of him, so multiply that by 50,000 times being the father,” Mohamed Saleem said. “When you say you don’t think of Sudan when it comes to swimming, they didn’t think of it either, that’s why it was a big surprise when he actually went the first time and won medals for the country. … It brought a lot of attention to swimming and the potential.”

Saleem will be a first-time Olympian, having gained experience on the big stage at multiple world championships.

He has secured Olympic berths in the 100 and 200 back — his best event — through each country’s one free entry, exempting him from qualifying minimums.

“I’m just trying to get faster and (reach) semifinals, that’s the goal,” he said in the lead up to the Paris Games.

Saleem has been to Sudan several times and met some of his Sudanese teammates just through attending meets with them. They keep in touch despite training in various parts of the world, but it’s the Americans at Cal he knows best.

Most of his family is gone from Sudan.

“With the war, they’ve all emigrated toward Egypt. They were all in Sudan in like (last) June and now they all went to Egypt with what’s going on there (in Sudan),” he said. “There’s some in the Middle East. There’s maybe one or two still in Sudan but everybody else left.”

His father immigrated to the United States in the 1990s and his mother in the early 2000s.

They can’t wait to see him compete in Paris alongside Murphy and all of the other stars.

Might Saleem have taught Murphy a thing or two during all their training battles and hours together in the pool?

“I don’t know if much,” Saleem said, “but I try to push my (backstroke) as much as I can and try to be a good person in and out of the water with him.”

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AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games



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