MassLive Feature: Amina Meho Watching Olympics From Amherst Instead Of Competing For Medals In London
Aug. 6, 2012
Amina Meho shouldn't be here right now.
Fresh out of the pool, the soon-to-be University of Massachusetts senior is slowly working on a ham sandwich at the Black Sheep delicatessen here.
She thought she'd be in London by now, eating bangers and mash or fish and chips. The closest thing she'll get at the Black Sheep is a cup of English Breakfast tea.
Her father thought she'd be there, too. He was an Olympian himself, in 1972. While the world watched in horror as terrorists killed 12 and America cheered swimmer Mark Spitz on his way to seven gold medals, Mohammed Meho, a Beirut native, was representing Lebanon in the breaststroke 40 years ago.
His daughter, born in Massachusetts, holds dual citizenship. She represented the country at the 2009 world championships and has traveled back and forth to Beirut each summer since.
She was told she was going to represent Lebanon at the 2012 Olympics.
The 50-meter freestyle, Meho's event, begins Friday at the Aquatics Centre in London.
She'll be in Amherst.
* * *
Her mother enrolled her in dance and ballet lessons as a young child, as well as soccer.
But when his daughter was turned 10, Mohammed Meho had his way.
"I said, `Enough dancing,'" Mohammed Meho recalled. "I'm going to put her on the swim team."
So he contacted the Woburn YMCA (the Mehos live in Burlington), who told him swim tryouts were just three days away.
The family had a 16-foot pool in the back yard. That would have to do for the first three days of Amina Meho's swimming career.
In three days, her father taught her the freestyle, backstroke and butterfly ("She's a very bad breaststroker," he confessed).
Meho made the team, and within a few years, owned the Woburn YMCA's record books. When she got to high school, she switched to the more prestigious and competitive Burbank YMCA in Reading, where she also rewrote the record books.
Mohammed Meho helped coach the Burlington High School team, but he also video taped each one of his daughter's races. He has a video library (which he says he's laboring to convert to DVD these days) that takes up quite a few shelves on a bookcase.
The only one missing from his collection: when Amina Meho won the state championship as a junior in the 50-meter freestyle. Her father was filming the wrong lane.
"I thought she came in fifth place," he said. "I looked like an idiot."
Her successful high school career led to offers from UMass and Vermont. She eventually decided to go to UMass because of coach Bob Newcomb.
"I loved Bob," she said.
The first offer from the Al Jazeera Swim Club came when she was 13. Mohammad Meho had told some of his friends about his daughter's times. They were sufficiently impressed, and offered to send her plane tickets each summer to come to Lebanon and swim for the club.
She turned down the offer. She wasn't interested. She was scared. She didn't want to be alone half way across the world.
Mohammad Meho wasn't having it. A few years later, he was in Lebanon for his brother's funeral. Upon his return, he informed his daughter that he had signed her up for the Al Jazeera Swim Club.
"I told him if we all went, that was fine," Amina Meho said. "I just didn't want to go alone."
So off they went.
The rest should have been history.
Amina Meho dominated her meets in that summer of 2009, and Lebanon selected her for the 2009 Pan-Arab Championships in Jordan, where she set two meet records.
"That was the peak of my swimming period," she said.
Then she was off the 2009 world championships in Rome. There, she literally rubbed elbows with Michael Phelps in the warm-up pool.
"It was the best summer ever," she said.
After a hiatus from swimming in the summer of 2010, Meho returned to Lebanon last September for the country's national championships, where she won five gold medals and one silver.
The silver came after she was defeated by Katya Bachrouche, another Lebanese-American (from Michigan), who swam in college at Virginia, in the 100-meter freestyle.
Still, after that six-medal performance, the Mehos began asking the Lebanon Swimming Federation about the Olympics.
"They told us, `She just needs to keep improving her times,'" Amina Meho said. "I thought (Bachrouche and I) would both go."
She returned to Lebanon in May to swim again, where she did exactly that, breaking her records in the 50-meter freestyle and 100 meter freestyle.
Even the media thought she was London-bound. Al Mustaqbal, a Lebanese newspaper, wrote on May 20 that "Meho is excited to represent Lebanon in the upcoming Olympics, especially since her scores qualify her to do so."
It was Mohammed Meho who received the news. It came in an email from his swimming contact in Lebanon, Adel Yamout, in broken English, on June 5.
The Republican obtained a copy of the email from Yamout to Mohammed Meho. Reading through it, the casual observer wouldn't even notice it contained bad news.
I hope you and the family are all fine!
the olympic qualification should be done in a 50m pool and under the approval of Fina.in the states there are still meets that could qualify Amina - as written in the mail belowif Amina could beat a qualifiqation she surely would go to London! Good luck!on our side we would like to have Amina in September for the Lebanese general Championship.
I remain at your disposal for any infos
Yamout's title inside the Lebanon Swimming Federation is unclear. He promptly returned one email from The Republican, but abruptly ceased contact when asked about his role inside Lebanon's Olympic Committee.
This email would make complete sense, except for the fact that Meho thought she had already qualified for the Olympics in a meet in Lebanon.
That meet, however, was in a short course (25-yard) pool. All of the sudden, the Lebanon Swimming Federation had changed its demands. Now, it wanted Meho to swim a 50-meter freestyle race in a long course pool at 26.1 seconds.
Her personal best is 27.1 seconds. She would have to shave a full second off of her time in just a couple of weeks.
Amina Meho was fishing in the Adirondacks of New York state with a friend when her father forwarded the email to her.
"I want you to come home," he told her. "You better get back in the pool."
"I had had enough with these stupid people, just leading me around, telling me to do this, then taking it back after I had worked my butt off to do something really good," she said.
But the next day, after her weekend at the Adirondacks came to a close, Meho returned to Amherst and began training again with Newcomb.
Meho and Newcomb wouldn't say that it was impossible for her to make that time. But it's pretty close. Especially since Meho had been resting, thinking that she had already done what she needed to do.
"I had one week to get in the best shape of my life," she said.
There was one more chance - a meet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that would offer her the opportunity to get the 26.1, which was the best case scenario, or, if she broke 26.3, she would be invited to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, where she would have another chance to get the 26.1.
Meho wasn't even close. Her time was 27.79.
"There was no way I was going to make (the 26.1) unless someone fed me steroids," Meho said.
"I know if I did go, it'd be for the experience and not the competition," she said. "When I watch, it's just like watching a regular meet."
Her friends wanted to turn the opening ceremonies off, but Meho wouldn't let them. She wanted to see Bachrouche and Lebanese men's swimmer Wael Koubrosli - even if they were just shown for what she said was no more than a second-and-a-half on the NBC broadcast.
Bachrouche swam in the 800-meter freestyle event on Thursday morning. She swam almost 10 seconds better than her time at the Lebanese championships, but didn't make the final.
When the 50-meter freestyle begins Friday, she says she'll watch it online with no hard feelings.
After all, there's always Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
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