Gamecock swimmer is a humble champion with big goals
Akaram Mahmoud is a South Carolina record holder, a Southeastern Conference Champion, and will soon be competing for his homeland, Egypt, at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro. But don’t expect the sophomore swimmer for the Gamecocks to be showing off any of his hardware or strutting around campus like a proud peacock, as he has other goals he’d like to tackle.
“I want to be the NCAA champion in the mile,” Mahmoud said. “I believe that I can be in the top three in the 500. I will do my best. I’ll work hard, so we’ll see what happens. After the NCAAs, I will think about the Olympics and being on that podium. I want to win a medal because it would be the first one for my country (in swimming), so it would be something special. I would work so hard to get that medal.”
Mahmoud has put his name all over the South Carolina record books in less than two years, but in a sport that often focuses on the individual, he prefers to talk about his role on the team.
“I couldn’t do anything that I’ve done without my teammates or my coaches,” Mahmoud said. “We work so hard. We had our targets since the beginning of the season. I had a target at the beginning of the season to be in the final in the 500 and to try to be in the top three in the mile. I didn’t expect that I’d win by nearly 14 seconds, but I swam my race. I worked a lot with (Associate Head) Coach Mark (Bernardino), and I made my pace all year. Hopefully at NCAAs I can go faster.”
“I think one of the reasons he is so humble is because has such big goals,” said head coach McGee Moody. “To him, this is a step in the process. He wants to be an NCAA champion. He wants to be an Olympic champion. So while being an SEC champion is great, it is a rung in the ladder for him. Your greatest athletes embrace the process, and that’s what he does. It’s not about a specific outcome. It’s about, what is the next thing that has to be done to become great.”
Mahmoud swam a school-record time of 14:35.49 to win the 1650 free title at the 2016 SEC Championships by more than 13 seconds.
“He made a move at 750 in that race,” said associate head coach Mark Bernardino. “Our discussion at pre-race was for him to go at the 850 mark, but he made an extra hard move at the 750 because he didn’t like where his opponents were. One of them was on the other side of the pool, so his spatial awareness is uncanny.”
Mahmoud is South Carolina’s first SEC champion on the men’s side since 2001, and his time was also the fastest in the nation this season. Incredibly, he shaved approximately 16 seconds off his time from the same event at last year’s SEC Championships where he finished fifth. He had earned All-American honors last year as a freshman in the 1650 freestyle and the 800 freestyle relay, while also being named to the SEC All-Freshman team.
“I feel like the hard work is paying off, so I’m happy,” Mahmoud said. “You have to hit your pace, which can be hard, and you have to be careful in your turns. They have to be strong to give you an advantage, even if it’s a couple one-hundredths (of a second). You have to be smart with your pace.”
“He normally will come back and ask for feedback,” Bernardino said. “After this race, he was taken away for the ESPN interview, but when he came back the first thing he said to me was ‘Was that OK?’ I told him he had a marvelous swim, and he tells me where he thought he could better the next time. So he re-swam that race in his head in those few minutes and already found where he could do something better.”
Even with those record times, Mahmoud is still working toward something greater.
“I need to work on my turns,” Mahmoud said. “There is huge difference from last year to this year. I feel way better now.”
“He is an extremely elite trainer,” Bernardino said. “One of the best I’ve encountered in my coaching career. He is very focused. He has an incredible sense of pace, and an incredible sense of rhythm. I like to refer to the heart and the lungs as the engine of the swimmer. His engine is phenomenal. It’s as good as anyone as I’ve encountered.”
“He’s a pretty special kid when it comes to putting himself into a race and following a plan,” Moody said. “There are certain characteristics of elite level athletes, and there is a certain confidence he has in his ability. There is a trust that he has in Coach Bernardino and our staff. There is also an athletic talent that comes along with it. You put those things together, and you’re going to get something special that you don’t see all the time.” While it can be tough being so far from home, Mahmoud enjoys his new home as the South Carolina swimming and diving teams are a cultural melting pot with student-athletes from several other countries as well as all over the United States.
“It was difficult for me to adapt at the beginning, but knowing my teammates now, they are my family,” Mahmoud said. “I’m so thankful for that. They were cheering for me the whole time at SECs. I felt so special. I wouldn’t have done anything without my teammates.”
“One of the things we do in the recruiting process is figure out the athlete,” Moody said. “We are trying to create a certain dynamic within our women’s program and within our men’s program. They’re very different teams. We have to bring in people who are going to strengthen that dynamic. It’s a process, and we use a lot of detail. The have very different personalities, but they all have similar goal structures. We may see four or five kids that are equal in their times, but we have to find the one that’s the best fit for us.”
Mahmoud has already qualified to swim for Egypt in the 400 and 1500 meter races in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro.
“He never talks about it,” Moody said. “But I know he is proud and excited to do that. That’s something that is very special to him. That flag on his cap means a lot.”
“He is very kind to everybody,” Bernardino added. “He is very humble. He is always encouraging others to do well. He is great teammate, who is hoping for the success of others as much as his own. Beneath this incredibly calm demeanor, when the beeper goes or the gun goes off (to start a race), wow, then there is a real animal that is unleashed.”
Mahmoud is a big deal is the world of swimming, but he’s not about to flaunt it by wearing his SEC gold and silver medals to class.
“I keep them in my locker,” Mahmoud said sheepishly. “I’m not going to walk with them around campus.”
But if he does win an Olympic medal, maybe you could twist his arm to let you see it.
“An Olympic medal,” Mahmoud mused. “Uh, I’d have to think about that. Maybe I’d wear it out. Of course I’d like to show that off.”