Western student making a splash on sport’s biggest stage

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

When Gamal Assaad doesn’t have his head buried in his Mechanical Engineering books, you’re likely to find the second-year student in the pool.

A rookie swimmer last year, Assaad quickly made a name for himself as a Mustang, capturing three Top 8 finishes at the CIS Swimming Championships and bringing home two bronze medals and two fourth-place finishes from the OUA Swimming Championships.

At the same time, he was one of 10 males chosen to swim for Team Canada at the recent Commonwealth Games last summer in Scotland and one of 36 swimmers to earn a spot for the Pan Pacific Championships last month in Australia. In between, Assaad participated in meets in Montreal, Vancouver and Spain.

“I’m simply having fun with the racing. It’s just fun to compete and have that natural ‘go for it’ kind of feeling,” said the 19-year-old Oakville resident, who took up swimming at age 9 while still in Saudi Arabia. He moved to Canada the following year.

Second-year Engineering student Gamal Assaad’s skills in the pool have taken him across Canada, Spain, Scotland, Australia and more. His goal is Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Paul Mayne//Western NewsSecond-year Engineering student Gamal Assaad’s skills in the pool have taken him across Canada, Spain, Scotland, Australia and more. His goal is Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

A decade into his career, he loves the individual challenge of the sport, while at the same time understanding you’re still on a team.

“It’s a mix of both. That’s the beauty of the sport,” Assaad said. “When you’re in the actual race, you’re the only one who’s swimming. You’re the only one who’s in your head and hearing your thoughts. But when you’re out of the pool, the support of your coaches and teammates gives you that vibe of ‘We’re doing this together.’”

Assaad’s swimming prowess – which includes a personal best 54.42 seconds in the 100m butterfly (just a second off the Canadian record held by Londoner Joe Bartoch) – was in high demand by universities across North America. In Canada, Victoria, Toronto, Guelph, McMaster and, of course, Western, did their best to entice the Oakville Aquatic Club talent to campus, while across the border Columbia and Penn State had the same idea.

“It’s a huge boost for your confidence to have school’s wanting you to represent them,” Assaad said.

So, why Western? “It was Paul and Ken,” he said, referring to Mustangs swimming head coach Paul Midgley and assistant coach Ken Fitzpatrick. “It was the way they approached me and were ready and prepared to help me succeed, their commitment to the sport and, not to mention, both being Olympians.”

For Midgley, seeing what Assaad accomplished in his first year raises his excitement level entering this season. But he knows there is work to be done.

“While we were pleased with how last year went, we feel there is lots of room for improvement,” Midgley said. “Three areas we identified are improved start technique, increase in strength and power and improved workout quality levels. If we can move forward on these three things, we will make further inroads on the world rankings.”

Assaad, he added, has been a great role model for the type of varsity athlete he hopes to develop at Western.

“No. 1 is his commitment to preparation for training and putting in the time to do the ‘extras.’ Second, would be his commitment to living ‘the athletic life’ away from the pool,” Midgley said. “It’s the only way it can be done to attain the levels Gamal aspires to.”

And that level? The Olympics.

“The dream is, of course, I’d like to keep going, to the Rio Olympics in 2016,” said Assaad, who will need to shave off a couple seconds off his personal best in order to make the trip. “It all about how bad you want it and what you’re going to sacrifice, on a daily basis, to make it happen. Paul and Ken trust me that outside the pool I’m doing my best.”

While the Olympics are on his mind, academics remain first on his to-do list.

“As hard as Engineering is, I have to admit, I love it,” he said. “I have to do a lot of work and have set academic goals for myself. Like swimming, it takes more practice and training. I’m able to separate the two and that’s something I’m still learning and perfecting, to be able to excel in both areas.”

With the help of academic counselors, he has reduced his course load this year. Heading into year two, Assaad is even more prepared to put in the time and effort, and accept the sacrifices, in order to better balance the two.

“I’m loving it. I was so excited to come back and swim with the team again,” he said. “The environment here is so strong, it’s completely different than club swimming. I can’t compare the support my teammates provide me – on my cell, tweeting, phone calls. There’s nothing better than that.

“You have to remember you win as a team, regardless if it’s Team Canada or Western. It works both ways. You not only have to swim for yourself and for your team, but you also need to be there for your team.”

Assaad, and his fellow Mustang swimmers, see their first action in the pool this weekend (Sept. 27) when they play host to McMaster at 3 p.m. at the Western Sports Recreation Centre.