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Medany Aims to be 1st Egyptian Woman to Medal at Olympics

Elizabeth Arrott & Japhet Weeks
As Egypt struggles to get back on its feet after 16 rocky months of revolution and military rule, the country's young Olympians are hoping to do the seemingly impossible under the circumstances, medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.  That's even tougher for pentathlete Aya Medany, 24.  As if training for one event were not hard enough, Egypt's Medany competes in swimming, horseback riding, fencing, and combined shooting and running.

"When I say that I play five events - swimming, running, shooting, fencing and riding - they say, 'Wow, so how can you do all this in one time?' I believe in my family always say, 'When we want to do something, we will do it. Whatever it is,'" said Medany.

And she does almost all of it wearing a hijab, or head scarf, the only one of 36 female pentathletes in London who will do so.

Ancient Egyptians immortalized their sportsmen in paintings like these.  But modern Egypt has failed to turn that legacy into consistent Olympic gold. The few medals it has tend to be in sports like wrestling and weightlifting.

The head of Egypt's Modern Pentathlon federation, Mohamed El Touni, thinks she can turn that around.

"Now I hope that my dream became true also, that Aya can catch a medal," he said.

Medany is Africa's best pentathlete and a real contender for a medal at this year's Olympics.  If she wins, she will be the first female Egyptian to ever do so.

But there have been a few extra obstacles thrown her way this year.  First, she's suffered from a back injury.  Second, this year's Olympics happen during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims traditionally fast.  And third, a decision by the International Swimming Federation that prevents her from wearing a full body swimsuit and veil during competition.

Though the decision conflicts with her religious beliefs, Medany has opted to compete anyway.

Her swim coach Tariq El Nouweihi points out there is a difference between wearing a short-cut bathing suit for recreation versus competition.

"If she stays like this for entertainment, maybe it's not good, but if she swim for training it's good. Not bad," said El Nouweihi.

But the biggest obstacle of all was the upheaval that has taken place in Egypt over the past 16 months. The revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak left the country's young Olympians scrambling for resources.

"After maybe the month of the revolution we [were] supposed to travel for a sports camp and a competition and there was a world cup in Egypt and it was canceled and we stayed like two months.  We didn't travel anywhere because there was a problem with money and with the airports and you [could not] travel and you [could not] come back," recalled Medany.

Still, even under these conditions Medany won gold at last year's Modern Pentathlon World Cup in Hungary.

She says the key to success is moderation.

"Everything is always by graduations, graduating. It's not only one time that I must to step the tenth stair and I don't go to the first and second and third. So I also take it step by step," Medany added.

As Egypt transitions from military rule to democracy for the first time in modern history, it's a lesson Medany hopes its new leaders would heed as well.

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