It’s been 32 years since a Lebanese athlete took home an Olympic medal. Three young women – a swimmer, a table tennis player, and a tae kwon do player – hope to end that drought at this year’s Olympics in London.
Katya Bachrouche says she has wanted to represent Lebanon since she was a freshman in high school. The 1.83 meter tall swimmer with an electric smile is the daughter of Lebanese parents Nassif and Polly Bachrouche. A resident of the United States, she took her first trip to Lebanon in December of 2010.
While there, Bachrouche got to meet a grandfather for the first time, and visited the Lebanese University and trained there. She also met the university’s athletic director, who got her signed up for the 2011 World University Games. Bachrouche called the World University Games a learning experience, but she still managed to qualify for the final, the first time a Lebanese swimmer had achieved that milestone.
Bachrouche, a native of Farmington Hills, Michigan, then came back to the University of Virginia to train and later went to the Lebanese Championships. There, she met officials from the International Olympic Committee and the Vice President of Lebanon came to see her swim. It was at that event where she was offered the chance to swim for Lebanon.
She soon made her countrymen proud. At the 2011 Pan Arab Games in Doha, Qatar, Bachrouche won four gold medals and two bronzes. She took gold in the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle races and in the 200m individual medley. The swimmer won bronze medals in the 50m freestyle and the 100m butterfly event.
During her senior year at Virginia, Bachrouche was the captain of the swim team and earned her first All-America accolade in the 500-meter freestyle race — an honorable mention for her time of 4:38.56 to break the school record. She also made the NCAA Championships for the second year in a row.
Bachrouche says she feels lucky to have dual citizenship and is really proud of having “Lebanese blood running through my veins.”
Andrea Paoli says her dream is to raise the Lebanese flag at the Olympics. The 20-year-old tae kwon do player says that when she was a child, she used to watch the Olympics after school and dreamed that she was there. However, she never though she would actually make it to the Games until she discovered tae kwon do.
In 2007, Paoli won the Lebanese junior championship, and participated in the Asian Juniors championships in Amman, Jordan, where she won a bronze medal. That motivated her to dedicate herself to the sport, including several hours a day of rigorous training.
Paoli also won a bronze medal at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China. She then took third in the 2011 British Open in Manchester.
Paoli took part in the World championships in 2008, 2009, and 2011, and in the Olympic Games qualifiers in Baku, Azerbiajan in 2011. Only the top three finishers in Baku made the Olympics, and Paoli finished sixth. She had one more chance to make the London Games – at the Asian qualifiers in Bangkok.
Andrea made the women’s under-57 kilogram gold medal match when she faced Thailand’s Rangsiya Nisaisom. Paoli lost 6-2, but her silver medal performance was enough to book her a ticket to London.
Paoli stands 1.7 meters tall and weighs 57 kilograms. She says making weight for her sport and the exhausting training are the main challenges of her sport. She trains at the Mont La Salle sports club in Beirut, and told the Reuters news agency that she is proud to be on the Lebanese team.
“I am the first person in Lebanon to have ever qualified in martial arts for seniors at the Olympics,” Paoli said. “The preparations are very difficult for sure, but this is my dream come true. I still can’t believe that I am going to participate in London this summer,” Paoli added.
Andrea acknowledges that participating in the Olympics is an honor, but she wants more than that: she wants a medal.
“We all know that it has been more than 30 years since Lebanon got a medal at the Olympics, but I am not going there for fun, I will do my best, Paoli said. “I know that we are 16 girls in my category and I know the 16, they all deserve a medal, but I want to get there ready as much as I can because my dream is the podium, not just to compete there, “Paoli told Reuters. “My dream is to raise Lebanon’s flag,” she said.
In addition to her Olympic dreams, Paoli also is studying business at the American University of Beirut because she said, “I can’t just depend on tae kwon do for a living.”
My dream is the podium, not just to compete there. My dream is to raise Lebanon’s flag. – Andrea Paoli.
You could say that table tennis is in Tvine Moumjoghlian’s blood. The 22-year-old’s father was a professional table tennis player and her inspiration.
“My father, he was Lebanon’s national champion for 17 years, he’s been playing this game for long time ago,”she told Reuters. “He knows everything and he played international championships and he was once ranked among the top 45 players in the world. So he has always been my inspiration,” she said.
Tvine has learned her lessons well. She was undefeated at the 2011 West Asian Championships in Amman, Jordan, and her win there earned her a berth in London. Moumjoghlian was also part of the Lebanese women’s team that won a bronze medal at the Pan Arab Games in Doha last December.
But the table tennis player says she has her sights set on Olympic success, especially since she is the first woman to represent Lebanon in table tennis in the Olympics since Larissa Chouaib at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Moumjoghlian has been playing table tennis since she was nine, and trains daily with members of her Homenetmen Club and her brother Avo. She has also hired a Chinese coach to help her training.
“Since I came back to Lebanon, I am working to raise my level so I can compete against international champions from China or Singapore,” she told Reuters. “The championship won’t be easy; this is the hardest championship in the world. Now I am preparing, starting next month I will have a Chinese coach who is going to train me until I go to the Olympics,” Moumjoghlian said.
The Lebanese Olympic Committee is still qualifying more athletes for London, in swimming and track and field. All are sure to do their best, and it is a good bet they all want to break Lebanon’s 32-year Olympic medal drought. Perhaps more women will be amongst them.
David Byrd is a journalist, writer, video editor and photographer. He is also the host of VOA's American Cafe, a weekly show covering life and culture in the United States.