Ali Rizk is set to compete at a level that many of his older, more experienced teammates would envy.
That’s because Rizk, having recently completed his first season as a member of the McMaster Marauder swim team, has been named to the Lebanese National Team, and will compete this summer.
It’s an impressive feat for such a young swimmer, but, for his part, Rizk quickly downplays the whole affair.
“I’m still kind of surprised,” he says. “Some of these guys that I train with deserve this much more than I do. I’m just a big sprinter.”
The Lebanese have their reasons to covet Rizk, who, despite being born and raised in Canada, is eligible to swim for the middle eastern country because his parents were born there.
“Ali is, I’m guessing, likely the best swimmer from Lebanon at the moment,” says Marauder head coach Andrew Cole. “But there have also been some other very, very good swimmers from that country. Typically, post-Olympics there are a few retirements, and he’s improved enormously in the last couple of years.”
Modest as he is, Rizk eventually concedes that he has inched past his Lebanese competition since he last visited the country a number of years ago.
“There were three or four guys to compete with when I was younger, they were a year or two older at the time,” says Rizk. “I’ve beaten them now. They quit. Some are still there, some are in Canada to train as well, but now I’m the top guy in the country.”
His ascent is no surprise to those who know and train with him, because as Cole notes, Rizk is quickly developing into a model Marauder.
“[Rizk has] got one of the healthiest attitudes on our whole team,” says the coach. “He’s completely committed as a Marauder and to the family and our goals and environment. He’s the ideal athlete for us at McMaster, and the timing couldn’t have been better with him just finishing his first season.”
Part of his commitment, like that of any endurance athlete, derives from fear – the fear of losing what he has already gained.
“Andrew always says that if you miss a week of swimming, you lose 50 per cent of what you gained from the beginning of the year,” says Rizk. “That scares the crap out of you. I have a perfect attendance record, I haven’t missed a practice this year, because it scares you.”
His work has transformed Rizk into a model not only for McMaster, but for his ancestral homeland of Lebanon as well. Without an extensive network of youth competition, the country is relatively short on top-level swimmers, making Rizk a lone star and giving him a remarkable amount of freedom.
He explains that Lebanese officials handed him a list that encompassed nearly every international event that the country is eligible for – including the World Water Polo Championships – and told him that he could compete at whichever he chose. Water polo is obviously out of the question, but even within the realm of pure swimming, Rizk has no shortage of choices. He currently sits atop the Lebanese national rankings in every event except the breast stroke.
“I can choose what I want to swim,” says Rizk. “[Lebanese officials’] mentality is that if I can represent the country well in a spot, then I can choose to do whatever I want. They want to show the strides that the Lebanese have made as a people.”
A bureaucratic mixup has made Rizk ineligible for the Summer Universiade, but he still plans to swim for Lebanon this summer. He has, however, limited his involvement with the national team to a single event per year, as McMaster remains his top priority.
His stroke selection, too, will be tailored to the plan devised for him by Cole. That plan should see Rizk – a strong, thickly-built swimmer who specializes in sprints – experiment with longer-distance events in an effort to push his endurance upward.
“[Rizk] is predominantly a sprint freestyler, but we are trying to expand that beyond the 100m [distance] and get him to the 200m, because I think that will, in the long term, make him stronger in the 50m and 100m,” says Cole. “But our primary focus right now is developing his distance-per-stroke and his hold in the water, because he’s a strong, strong swimmer. He’s as strong as some of the football players, but trying to channel all of that energy into the pool with the greatest efficiency is his next step.”
For the time being, Rizk is training alongside a select group of Marauders at McMaster, as they prepare for the Canada Cup in Montreal at the end of June. The taper-down period in their training has already begun for that event, which is a crucial opportunity to challenge national time standards.
His specific participation with Lebanon this summer remains to be determined, but Rizk believes that whatever form his national commitment takes, it will be beneficial to the Marauders as a whole.
“It all builds up,” he says of his upcoming race experience. “These meets are stepping stones for what we, as a group, are trying to do.”