Issue No.
196, August 2014 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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A Palestinian Swimming Champion
By Omar Tesdell

Overcoming challenges is Maria Asfoura’s specialty. The thirteen-year-old Palestinian swimmer from Bethlehem is training for next summer’s World Championships in Montréal, Canada. The challenge of proving herself on the world stage is something Maria looks forward to. “Nothing comes easily in life,” Maria says. “I want to become someone in swimming.”

Her journey began at the age of six when Maria’s swimming instructor recognized her natural gift and encouraged her to enrol in the De La Salle sports club in Bethlehem. With the encouragement of her trainer at the club, Musa Nawawreh, and her parents she developed quickly. In her first race in Ramallah, she received a gold medal and that really encouraged her to work even harder. At the time there were not many opportunities for aspiring Palestinian athletes, so much that Maria was able to train in an open pool during the summer months only. She is now able to train year-round at a local club.

Considered the best Palestinian swimmer her age, Maria is a widely travelled young woman. She specializes in the freestyle and butterfly strokes at 50 and 100 metres. She has competed well in China, Germany, Jordan and Algeria and her trophy case proves it, with her 31 gold medals and 30 some silver and bronze medals. Maria has also travelled to Greece to be with the Palestine team at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, to show her support.

Maria’s success has come at a cost. In April 2004, while returning to Amman, Jordan, from a swimming competition in Aqaba, she was injured in a serious car accident. Glass from the windshield severely injured her face, requiring six hours of surgery at an Amman hospital. She retuned home to Bethlehem to recover. She was not able to swim for two months until her face healed. Maria then had minor reconstructive surgery in Italy in August 2004, supported personally by the Deputy Minister of Culture, Mario Pescante, who is also the Secretary General of the European Olympic Committees. Maria has to return to Italy in the summer to complete the treatment.

Maria was reluctant to go back into the water because she associated it with the accident. “I was not able to understand what had happened to me when I looked in the mirror,” she recalled. But her family and friends were very supportive. She also received encouragement to continue swimming from members of the Palestinian Swimming Federation as well as Palestinian ministers and the late President Yasser Arafat himself. She eventually got over her fear and started swimming again.

Rigorous training and frequent travel have taken their toll on a young woman of Maria’s age. She heads to the Beit Sahour YMCA six days a week at 5 a.m. to swim before school and is often forced to stay up late at night for her studies. While it is sometimes hard to balance school and swimming, Maria gets a lot of support from her teachers who often visit her at home on weekends to tutor her for classes that she has missed.

The Israeli occupation presents its fair share of challenges as well. Born to Palestinian parents in Colombia, Maria is able to travel on her El Salvadorian passport to leave Palestine through Jordan. Otherwise, it would be much more difficult to receive permission to leave through Jordan. “When I travel I see the difference; what it’s like not to live under occupation,” she notes. Maria finds comfort when other athletes at competitions abroad express their solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom. In Greece and Algeria she and other Palestinian athletes were even asked for their autographs.


The plight of her people is always on her mind. “Although we have to struggle for freedom, we also have to keep working and training,” Maria affirms. Her dream is to raise the Palestinian flag at the 2008 Olympic Games in China. The presence of Palestinian athletes at world-class competitions is the first step, but Palestinians should not be satisfied with participation only. Success is also important. “It would be great for Palestine to become known for its athletic spirit.” No stranger to challenges, Maria speaks with the wisdom of a young woman several years her senior. She insists that other Palestinian youth can follow her lead.

Learn more about Maria by visiting her website: 
www.maria-asfoura.com
Omar Tesdell is a Palestinian-American who works with the International Centre of Bethlehem.


Article Photos by Omar Tesdell

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