Wisconsin’s state champion in the 100-yard backstroke prays before and after his races. “I always ask Allah for help and forgiveness and am grateful for the spot I am in now,” Ziyad Saleem, 17, of Milwaukee told the Wisconsin Muslim Journal in an interview this week, explaining how he felt about the opportunities he lost in 2020.
Top among them—an athletic scholarship to the University of Iowa evaporated when the university announced in August it was canceling its swimming program after this season. Another big disappointment occurred when Milwaukee Public Schools decided to put its winter sports on pause, dashing the 2020 Wisconsin champion’s hopes of defending his title this spring and going down in history by breaking state swimming records.
In Zoom interviews this week, Saleem, and his parents, Mohamed Saleem and Azza Malik talked about the challenges the young athlete has faced in 2020. His parents said they are proud of Ziyad’s exceptional response.
“With what he had to go through, he wasn’t disappointed. He didn’t end up quitting. He started to look right away at the positive side and that is what I am glad to see,” Mohamed Saleem said. “There are some kids who would quit right away at that point.”
The blessings of 2020
“When I thought about it, 2020 has really been a test for him more than anything,” Ziyad’s father said. “Our faith is involved in anything we do. It is ingrained in the way of thinking and the approach to everything you do. There is a logic to it.”
There are pros and cons to every situation but, from the Muslim perspective, everything is a blessing, he continued. “As Muslims, we believe there is a reason for anything that happens to us.
“As we say in Islam, everything that happens to you is good, whether it’s good or bad. From the good, you can appreciate it and get the reward. For the bad things that hit you, you can become patient and you still get the reward. There is a higher goal behind everything we do.”
The loss of the scholarship was “not easy to swallow,” he said. “Financially, it put us in a bad position. All schools have already committed their money to other athletes, so it isn’t really a matter of do they want him or not. Either there is no money available or there are no spots on the team.
“The option is to drop the year in order for him to get a good scholarship to a good school next year. We are looking into him picking up some classes that he can transfer so it is not a complete drop from school.”
As a swimmer, staying out a year “will actually help him develop,” he added. “Most of the schools he is talking to are for 2022-23. The focus will be on improving himself and developing as a swimmer for the next year.”
Ziyad said it has given him an advantage. “Luckily, I’ve still been making progress. From when I committed until they dropped the program, I had gotten a lot faster. That opened a lot more doors that weren’t there earlier in the year. I wasn’t disappointed too much because I knew there are a lot of better opportunities this time around.”
Swimming only one event in the short course pool, in the December Speedo Performance Meet, Dec. 19 – 20, at the Walter Schroeder Aquatic Center in Brown Deer, where Saleem trains, he dropped nearly two seconds in the 200 back, touching in 1:42:93, the center’s online newsletter reported. “He now ranks as the 73rd-fastest swimmer in the 17-18 All-Time Top 100 age group performers in the event.
“Saleem’s best time when Iowa announced that they were cutting their program was a 1:45.93. Since then, with two best times in the event, he’s now knocked 3 full seconds off that mark. His new best time would rank him 4th in Iowa program history already, though he’ll now find a different college to swim for,” the newsletter noted.
Another positive from the pandemic is that the Tokyo Olympics were moved from 2020 to 2021. “It will give him a full year to qualify,” said Mohamed. “But in the process, during his senior year, he loses an opportunity to put his name on the books, to literally demolish previous records – winning another state but also having the chance to put a record under his name. And records last many years. But that’s not going to happen.”
Working toward the 2021 Olympics
At the 2020 U.S. Open Championships, Nov. 12 – 14, in Des Moines, Iowa, Saleem made two Olympic trial cuts, meeting or exceeding the time required to be included in the competition. He dropped 4 seconds from his personal best time in the men’s 200 back, winning the race with a 2:01:30. He dropped 2 seconds in the men’s 100 back, winning at 55.54.
Ziyad is working towards the 2021 Olympics and with dual citizenship in the United States and Sudan, he has two possibilities.
“It is like you have a short-term goal and a long-term goal,” explained his father. “He is practicing and competing here. He qualified. He is marching toward the U.S. team.
“And in the process, he can easily qualify to swim for Sudan and hopefully go and get them something that is meaningful to them.
“Ziyad went last year and competed in the CANA Juniors African Championship in Tunesia. It was the first time for Sudan, since they got their independence in 1956, that they qualify from preliminary to finals. And on top of that, in the three events that he swam, he got them three silver medals in the 50, 100 and 200 backstroke.
“It was a big deal for them. He might not recognize it, but he is a celebrity in Sudan.”
In a similar way, Saleem has been carrying the banner for the City of Milwaukee. Before the Rufus King High School student showed up, it had been five years since a swimmer from the City Conference even qualified for the WIAA state meet.
And when he won first place in the 100-yard backstroke last year, it was the City’s first state champion in 13 years.
For Ziyad, the focus is not on the next big step. “Normally, in training and practice, the time is not my main concern. I’m more focused on the little skills that help me get those times. Because you can’t really control the time. You can control the little things you do to get those times,” he said.
A mother’s dua
Ziyad’s parents enrolled him in a swimming program at a public pool close to their home when he was 3 years old. He burned through the six levels. An instructor there who was also a coach at Schroeder Aquatic Center gave a brochure to Ziyad’s mother Azza Malik when he was 6 and told her she thought he was ready for the team.
“I always pray for him, that he is in the right place at the right time,” Malik said.
After we joined Schroeder, he practiced four times a week. Then it progressed to five, six and now to seven days a week. And they do doubles. You go at 5 a.m. and then again in the afternoon. It was a big commitment not only for Ziyad, but for his whole family.
“He was a child who knew what he wanted to do. He loved swimming. He was never the child who would say, ‘I’m tired. I don’t want to go to practice today.’ If there were doubles, he would be the first one there.”
“He knew what he wanted. He was so committed honestly.”
Ziyad explained, “I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything. I really liked swimming and it was the thing I was looking forward to beyond anything else. “
“He’s also a great student,” Malik said. “If he wants to do something, he would have it planned. Here’s what I want to do. Here is how I’m going to do it. He would have that discipline to do it.
“He would know, here’s what’s next for me. This is the number I need to achieve to swim. For a child like this, you can’t say no. You just say, OK.”
With all the expense, travel, time commitment and juggling, Ziyad’s parents have never wavered. Their faith is in God, they said.
“When we put him in sports, what was in our heads was that you have to keep boys busy. But honestly, when you think about how all things are progressing, you think, everything happens for a reason.
“God would have never put us in this position, this situation if it wasn’t meant to be. When I pray, I make dua for my kids, that God would put us in the right place at the right time and wish that things can go in the right way. I think that has been happening, al-hamdullilah. We are really thankful that things are happening that way.”