Feature | Water polo

How a Harvard-educated doctor overcame racism to make Olympic dreams come true

As the son of Egyptian immigrants, Dr. Omar Amr used racism as motivation to make the USA water polo team. Now he wants to eradicate it.

By Andrew Binner ·

In September, a doctor caused waves in the water polo world when he wrote an article detailing the racism he suffered before and during his time as a USA national team player.

A son of Egyptian immigrants, Dr. Omar Amr highlighted the many instances where individuals and institutions tried to prevent him from reaching his potential due to his skin colour.

But they severely underestimated the strength of his resolve.

He used the discrimination as motivation to succeed in life, and was eventually selected for the Athens 2004 Olympic team while completing a medical degree at Harvard.

Olympic Channel spoke to Dr. Amr on video call to find out exactly how he triumphed over racism, and why his article received hate from unexpected sources.

Omar Amr practising with Team USA water polo (Courtesy Omar Amr)

“I was told my religion was evil”

Amr was taught to play water polo at the age of five by his father, who formerly represented the Egyptian national team.

But growing up in east Los Angeles and then Orange County, in a nation where water polo is overwhelmingly white-dominated, Amr struggled to fit in.

"Being the only brown guy on the team was a little bit difficult, especially back then,” he told Olympic Channel.

“People could say and do whatever they wanted and it didn't matter.

“People would drop the N-bomb on me all the time. I've had coaches in elementary school tell me on a regular basis that this was not the sport for someone like me, telling me that land sports were probably something more prone for a person like me."

“They would take me out of classes and put me in a Bible truck because I was told my religion was evil. I remember wishing that I could be lighter skinned with straighter hair." - Omar Amr to Olympic Channel

Omar Amr with his older sister Dena (left) and his younger sister Aleah (right) at the Athens 2004 Olympics.

The future water polo star decided not to succumb to these derogatory voices and, despite starting to believe some of the hate being cast in his direction, stayed true to the principles his parents taught him.

Amr’s parents knew what it felt like to be an outcast in the country of your birth, and they wanted to teach their children to succeed in life despite these barriers.

“My parents came from Egypt after the (1952) revolution. They came here with nothing. My mum worked 14 hour days sewing and my father worked at gas stations in order to put himself through school. They instilled this work ethic in my sisters and myself, so we just were very goal driven, worked hard and just battled.

“I loved playing water polo and every four years my father would get us together to watch the Olympics. So it was always in my heart and I looked at it as a goal from the age of six. I wanted to be an Olympian.

“Despite everyone else's best efforts to keep me down. I just thought, I'm going to do this no matter what.” - Omar Amr to Olympic Channel

Omar Amr in action for the USA against Serbia and Montenegro in the 2004 Belgrade Trophy

A shrewd lesson in racism

As well as working hard to overcome prejudice, Amr’s parents realised that their children would also have to be street-wise.

“When my dad taught me how to drive, he said if we got pulled over that I had to put my hands on the steering wheel. I could never get out of the car. And then I wasn't supposed to look at the police officer.

It wasn’t long before that training was put into practice, while Amr was sitting in the passenger seat of his friend’s car.

“One of my white team-mates was driving and we got pulled over and he was getting out of the car. I was begging him not to get out.

“He was laughing at me, asking me why I was so anxious. Then he got out and started having a conversation with the police officer. They were joking for a good five or 10 minutes. So I thought that I could get out of the car, but as soon as I did the police officer started yelling some racial slurs to me and pointed his gun at me."

“It was then that I realised the rules weren't the same for someone like me. My friend realised it as well, and it actually made us closer friends because, for the first time in his life, he saw what it was like to not be white.”

Omar Amr (#3) and USA team-mates prepare to enter the pool at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games

Getting into fights

Amr admitted that as a child he didn't fully understand why he was being treated differently from the other kids.

But as he got older, he saw the racism for what it was and decided to fight back.

“It just made me angry and I became vengeful. I took out my frustrations in a non-productive way,” he continued.

“Even my early years on the national team, if someone said any kind of a racial slur to me it was a fight right away. I was that angry dark guy in the pool.”

College also proved to be a turning point in how he wanted to combat racism.

It was there that he met many other athletes from minorities, and through the sharing of similar stories Amr realised that he wasn’t alone.

“I started to process it differently, and wanted to start educating people instead of seeking revenge.”

USA's Omar Amr (left) tussles with Hungary's Gergely Kiss at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games

Losing weight and Olympic disappointment

Whether it was his anger, natural talent, or a combination of both, Amr earnt All-American water polo honours while at the University of California, Irvine.

A national team call-up followed in 1995 and his dream of making the Olympic Games started to become a reality.

As he was still too young to make the Atlanta 1996 Games, Sydney 2000 was the target.

Over the next four years things looked encouraging as he ‘created a niche’ for himself in the team.

But even at the elite level of water polo, Amr was still constantly made to feel like an outsider in his own team.

“On my first trip with the team I was called out for being different."

“I was a Muslim, so I don't eat pork, and as every meal in Europe is pork I couldn't eat with the team. The coaches and other athletes thought that that was funny and always looked at me like I was crazy."

"I would lose weight on all of these trips. I got benched once for sneaking out to eat McDonald's, and it just seemed every year that I was gonna get cut. But every year when I did get an opportunity to play, I played well.”

Despite his weight loss, the Sydney Games drew closer and he was surviving every squad cut. But in early 2000, his dream came crashing down when he was cut.

"I didn't really get much of an explanation. I was crushed.”

Dr. Omar Amr poses with surgeon and fellow water polo player Dr. Margie Dingeldein in  USA Water Polo magazine.

Resilience

Given that the USA water polo team trained in California and Amr was due to begin studying at Harvard Medical School on America’s east coast in 2001, he considered his sporting career to be over.

But a change in national team coach offered a flicker of hope.

“I actually didn't really care about being a doctor. I just wanted to be an Olympian.” he revealed.

“The team hired (Olympic silver medallist) Ratko Rudic who was, and probably still is, the most renowned coach in the sport. He'd coached multiple countries to Olympic gold and I just figured I'm going to try before medical school to make the team.”

Rudic held his first national training camp in January 2001. Feeling energised by the change in leadership and his desire to have a fair opportunity to make an Olympic team, Amr decided to show up uninvited.

“I sat and watched them play for two days and I was completely frustrated because there were players in the pool that I felt didn't have my talent," he said.

"So on the third day, they were getting ready to swim and I just jumped in the water and Ratko looked at me like I was crazy, and I said, ‘I want you to see how I swim compared to the other athletes here’, And he said, ‘Okay’.

"I pretty much crushed everybody in the pool, so Ratko turned to the other coaches and he was like, ‘Why didn’t you invite this player?’

"So he invited me to another camp the next weekend in northern California, and the rest is history."

In another display of relentless dedication, Amr trained in the pool at midnight after his medical classes before hopping on a national team-paid flight to California from Boston.

He’d get off the five-and-a-half hour flight, go straight to practise for the whole weekend, and fly back to Boston on Sunday night.

Amr made the Olympic team for Athens 2004, helping the team to a seventh-place finish.

Omar Amr (left) with his best friend and Olympic team-mate Genai Kerr (Courtesy Alliance for Diversity and Equity in Water Polo)

Creating a positive change

After retiring from water polo and finishing his studies, Amr decided to return to the sport in order to address some of the injustices that he had suffered.

As the national women’s team doctor, he was able to use his medical skills while also mentoring athletes from ethnic minorities.

One of these athletes was Ashleigh Johnson, who went on to become an Olympic champion at Rio 2016 and attributes much of her success to Amr’s support.

“I love Ashleigh to death. Firstly, I think Ashleigh helped herself by being amazing. She's arguably one the best athletes to ever play the sport,” Amr said.

“She suffered from the same comments as I did. We were both told that we can't focus, that we don't have that internal drive to succeed, that we can't be part of the team because we're different.

“When they said those things about Ashleigh I often would call them out. I can't tell you the number of times in my experience within water polo that I've seen athletes that I thought could have been moulded into gold medallists if only somebody had just taken them under their wing and nurtured them the same way we do white athletes.

“I think it threatens them that we're different. And honestly, it threatens them because if the sport were inclusive, many of them wouldn't have spots on these teams or they wouldn't have made these teams.”

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Amr wanted to put a mechanism in place that created a permanent change for good in the sport, and unearth the next Ashleigh Johnson.

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, the emergency room doctor founded the Alliance for Diversity and Equity in Water Polo, which campaigns for greater inclusivity in the sport and provides a safe space for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) athletes to talk.

Surprising reaction

Amr expected a mixed reception after deciding to go public with the racial struggles he has come up against in his life.

Many people reached out to thank him for his honesty, while some contested his account.

But what he didn’t expect was that several of his own former team-mates would deny some of the things he had said, given that they had witnessed many of the events.

"The article was for education, it wasn't meant as a vengeful article and that's why I didn't name people.

"But none of the overt racists lashed out - it was my closest friends. They called me in anger, some of them that I'd been team-mates with for more than 20 years, that I thought were my brothers.

"I realised why so many people in our sport have remained anonymous. I thought it was time to get up in front together and fight this fight and educate people together."

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, plus the experiences of Johnson and other sportspeople of colour, suggest attitudes towards racism have not changed markedly since Amr's college days.

Through sharing his story, he has provided support to many people who have also experienced his pain and helped educate a wider audience.

"I forewent anonymity to encourage others to feel safe in sharing their stories. It's my hope that others will recognise themselves in my story, will see their own ambitions and dreams, and will do their part to create lasting change, for all of us." - Omar Amr