The 16th World Aquatics Championships in Kazan, Russia, will have a UMBC tinge courtesy of Mohamed Hussein.
Hussein, the former Retrievers standout, will represent Egypt in the 50- and 100-meter backstroke and the 200 intermediate medley events at the championships, which open July 24. Hussein, a 23-year-old who grew up in Cairo and graduated from UMBC in December with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering, is already the Egyptian record holder in the 200 IM at 2 minutes, 2.29 seconds. But he said he wants to join the elite group of swimmers that includes Americans Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
"To see other people swim fast when I was just swimming, I would be ranked 30-something or 20-something," Hussein said. "I really want to be up there. I have to. I have been swimming for 18 years now, and I really want to do something very good so that I can be remembered."
Retrievers coach Chad Cradock, who has been tutoring and refining Hussein's technique in preparation for the championships, said Hussein has the tools to put himself in contention for a medal.
"Mohamed's a racer, and he's extremely competitive, and that's what has gotten him to where he is," Cradock said. "He races in practice, he's raced in dual meets, he's raced in championship meets, and when he puts his mind to something, he generally achieves that."
Hussein's path to representing Egypt on the global stage has covered several decades and thousands of miles. He began swimming at age 4 after watching older sister Riham become an accomplished swimmer.
Water has always been a passion for the Hussein family with patriarch Khaled Hussein swimming as an amateur.
"We as a family crave sports so much, and I myself love swimming and I was a swimmer but nothing professional," the elder Hussein said via email. "I put all that in my children and started with my older son Hossam in water polo and then my daughter Riham in swimming and finally my little champion Mohamed. By an early age, all I saw was his passion for water and his interest in my elder daughter's swimming practice."
Mohamed Hussein attended Cairo University, but struggled juggling swim practice and course work. A friend who swam at the University of Pittsburgh gave Hussein the names of colleges with strong swim teams, and one of the schools listed was UMBC.
Cradock, who quickly responded to Hussein's email in May 2011, said he welcomed Hussein's transfer after noting his time of 1:50 in the 200 backstroke.
"Swimming is a great sport in the sense that we don't have to go out and watch him or anything like that. We just need to know his time," Cradock said. "… We look at times because that's pretty black and white when it comes to knowing about potential. We thought that at the time, 1:50 in the 200 was going to be a nice contributor for us. We didn't even understand the potential, and once we got the potential here, it was unbelievable."
In his first season with the Retrievers, Hussein shaved three seconds off his time in the 200 backstroke. He trimmed three more seconds off in his second year, rewrote school records in three different individual events, and became the program's first swimmer to qualify for back-to-back NCAA championships in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
He missed out on qualifying for the 2012 Summer Olympics in the 100 freestyle and 200 IM, but set the Egyptian record in the 200 IM at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, Spain.
Hussein is arguably the best swimmer on the Egyptian national team, and Khaled Hussein said his son carries the hopes of a nation on his 6-foot-2, 161-pound frame.
"We want him [to be] one of the best 16 swimmers in his events with new records for him and for Egypt," Khaled Hussein said. "As a father, I hope for the gold medal of course."
Hussein, who trained with Cradock in Maryland before joining his teammates in Russia on July 23, said the pressure of representing his native country is not as heavy as it once was.
"It used to be," he said. "I don't think it is anymore just because of what's happening right now. I used to be the only swimmer from Egypt. We had three people in 2012, and that was a lot of pressure. But right now, I have 15 teammates who made the cut with me. So it's just a lot different. We're going to the world championships with a big team instead of going with just two or three people."
Hussein said his goal is to set personal bests in all three of his individual events and make the semifinals of the 200 IM, which is his strongest race. Hussein said the experience of the 2013 world championships has resonated with him.
"I think it's just made me hungrier," he said. "I just think it takes time, dedication, work, heart, and then all of those things will be easy to achieve."