Not many people understand the true sacrifice elite athletes make to be at the top of their respective sports. Ahmed and Sief Sallam, swimmers on the Marist Swimming & Diving team and nationally ranked swimmers and volleyball players in Egypt, sacrificed their social life to reach the top.
With a strong training regimen and support from their parents, the Sallam brothers reached the highest level of success in the MAAC.
“It was very time-consuming, physically and mentally draining, but we did have a good support system,” Ahmed Sallam said.
The brothers grew up in Cairo, Egypt, raised by parents that were both professional athletes. Their mother was on the Egyptian National Team as the captain for the open water and indoor swim team, and their father was on the national volleyball team. Their older sister also went through the swimming and volleyball ranks and held a national record in swimming. With the national team experience in the family, there was a high standard.
“We grew up knowing we have role models and idols in both sports that we can follow,” Ahmed said.
The brothers started playing volleyball around the age of five and started swimming at the age of four. Their parents taught them techniques and training routines so they could be competitive with their age groups. With a little over a one-year difference in age between the brothers, it was easy for their parents to teach them together.
“Whatever they say to him, they say to me,” Ahmed said. “That helped us both and created a nice rivalry for us.”
Ahmed started competing in volleyball at the age of 7, two years before Sief. The seasons worked differently from the United States; they competed in one age group at a time for swimming, and they had two age groups for volleyball. There were four big swimming championships and then one volleyball season. The big events were the Cairo Zone Championships and Nationals. Once Sief started competing, it created a friendly rivalry among the brothers.
“It was so important for me because I was ten years old swimming with eleven-year-olds,” Marist swimmer Sief Sallam said.
Once the brothers turned 11, they started a grueling training schedule that molded them. The daily schedule would consist of a 4:30 a.m. wake-up followed by swimming practice from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Then they went to school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m, followed by club team practice. Their club team was Al Ahly Sporting Club, which they say is about the size of Marist College. Al Ahly carried every sport and the top athletes in Egypt and Europe.
“The club was named the club of the century, meaning we were the number one club in the continent of Africa,” Sief said.
At the club, the brothers would have a second swim practice from 6 p.m to 8 p.m, followed by volleyball practice and lifting from 9:30 p.m to 11:30 p.m. The brothers had minimal time to eat or do homework throughout the day, and they got home at midnight. From the hours of 4:30 a.m. until 12 a.m. The brothers were consumed with athletics or school.
They did this from age 11 until college.
“We see our bed and just hide under the blanket because we are repeating this again the next day,” Ahmed Sallam said.
The hard work started to pay off for the brothers when they were invited to compete in the World Championship Qualifications in Dubai in 2011. Ahmed competed at the age of 12, and Sief was 11. Sief was named the best national swimmer in his age group, and he was the only 11-year-old from Egypt at the competition. During this time, Sief also held the national record for the 200 freestyle for his age group. Ahmed was top ten in all of his events and won a gold and silver medal. When Ahmed won the silver medal, Sief won the bronze, which allowed them to share the podium.
“We have no time to have fun, so to be at the top level, we gave up that part. So it feels amazing to be on the podium, and the whole audience is watching you, and it gives you a rush,” Sief said.
“We were lucky enough to be one of the best swimmers in the country, and we feel like we did the work so we would be able to be on the podium between one and three,” Ahmed said.
The brothers enjoyed success, but maintained a hunger for more. Despite being named the best swimmer at championship events in 2011, 2012, and 2013, Sief simply wasn’t satisfied.
“We would go up to our parents after winning a medal and say we want more,” Ahmed Sallam said.
At the age of 16, the brothers were given the opportunity to join the national teams for swimming. Once reaching the national level, the brothers separated into their specialties as Ahmed was a better sprinter, and Sief was better at distance. Sief could swim in the open water with races as long as 5k and above. Ahmed was focused on short-distance races like the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle or backstroke.
“Now you’re competing against the world, and you’re not the only person with that mentality,” Ahmed said. “There are at least twenty other people with that mentality, and they are striving for the same thing.”
Both brothers continued finding success at the national level. Ahmed placed first in the 50-meter backstroke and placed second in six other competitions. Sief won three gold medals with the Egyptian National Team and went on to win four gold medals at the Cairo Zone Championships in 2019.
Following this success, the brothers received many college offers. Ahmed was the first to go to college, and his decision to attend Marist was not an easy one. He talked to many large Division-I athletic programs about volleyball and swimming including Texas, Cornell, and Princeton.
Ahmed was intrigued by Marist’s qualities such as small size classes and an impressive computer science program. After talking with former Marist S&D coach Larry VanWagner, Ahmed felt it was a good place for him despite Marist not carrying a men’s volleyball team.
“It was a wholesome package that was hard to pass up,” Ahmed said.
A big factor in Ahmed’s decision was his goal for life. They knew from a young age that they were not going to be athletes forever.
“We know that there is going to be a time where we have to retire, and that time will be much earlier than most careers,” Ahmed said.
The brother’s parents retired at 35 and successfully pursued other careers. The guidance they have received from their parents has been integral for them when making big decisions, “When we say role model, it’s really an understatement,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed remembers his first day at Marist, where he recalls telling his coaches that his name will be on the record board by the end of the year.
“Looking back, I was not an easy swimmer to deal with, but I’m very thankful for my coaches because they were able to understand my curiosity,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed handled the adjustment to swimming in the United States easily, as he finished his freshman year on the record board. He was the first Marist swimmer to go sub 23 seconds in the 50-meter backstroke, and he split the fastest 50-meter free time in school history. Ahmed credited his parents for helping him adjust so quickly.
Sief had a different experience in his recruiting process as it was during the COVID pandemic. After reaching out to VanWagner and seeing the success of his brother, it was an easy decision to come to Marist.
“Him being here was big for me,” Sief Sallam said. “When he made the decision to come here, I knew then that it was a good school.”
The process of getting Sief to the United States was brutal during the pandemic. Sief was forced to stay home in Egypt and take classes online. He had to be in Zoom classes at 12:30 a.m., and he worked out with limited equipment in his house.
Sief worked with current Head Coach Anthony Randall to get his Visa during the tough stretch of college from around the world. After missing the start of the season and months of waiting, Sief obtained his Visa just four days before the 2020 MAAC Championships. He was able to compete but did not score points in the event.
Sief’s arrival was a surprise to the team– in fact, it was kept secret. He remembers walking out of the tunnel and surprising his teammates at the pool with a wave of confusion and excitement.
“Everyone stopped and was in shock, and people were like, Sief is here!” Sief said.
After a canceled season due to COVID in 2021, the brothers returned this past season ready for a big year. Ahmed went into the season with a target on his back, having to defend his title as a MAAC champion and having held eight records the season before.
“That was challenging because you hit the high of holding eight records, and then you hit the ceiling,” Ahmed said. “I asked myself, what’s next?”
Ahmed pushed himself to new heights in the 2022 season as he now holds nine school records in the 50 free, 100 free, 50 back, 100 back, 200 medley relay, 400 medley relay, 200 free relays, 400 free relays, and the ECAC record in the 100 free. He also qualified for the NCAA championships, the first swimmer in Marist history. He competed in the National Invitation Championship in Elkhart, Indiana. Ahmed finished sixteenth in the 50-meter backstroke, eleventh in the 100-meter freestyle, and fifth in the 50-meter freestyle at the Invitation.
“It feels satisfying,” Ahmed Sallam said. “It was a realization because I hit the ceiling, but then also how I have a lot more to give to this sport.”
Sief did not place in any events in his first year swimming for Marist, but he is proud of the progress he made. At the beginning of the year, he was seeded 15th, and by the end, he was seeded 13th. He finished with his best times at the end of the year, and he is proud of the result.
“I was not used to meets every week, but then I adapted to it,” Sief said.
Sief played a big role in Ahmed’s success. Over the summer, they worked out together twice a day. They would work out in the morning with Randall, head to their internships, then lift at night. Sief helped Ahmed lift weights, and he pushed him to the max. Sief sees Ahmed as his idol, and is always rooting for him to win.
“The amount of love and respect I have for him is so big, and he knows that,” Sief said. “A part of me was happy with what he achieved because I felt that I had a tiny contribution of that, whether it was emotionally or physically.”
“I can say that I don’t think I would have been where I am this season without the support I had from my brother,” Ahmed said.
As the brothers look to the future, they are looking to finish their academic careers strong. Ahmed finished his bachelor’s and master’s in computer science with a concentration in software development and a minor in cybersecurity with magna cum laude in 2022. He will complete his second master’s in information systems this coming May. Sief will finish his bachelor’s in computer science and master’s in software development in May.
After graduating, they are looking to find a job and find time to pursue a professional career. With the Summer Olympics coming in 2024, the brothers have their eyes on competing for Egypt. The national teams have been in contact, and they hope to make the times required for Paris 2024.
“We believe we can make it there, it’s just a matter of are we going to have the time to practice to get there,” Ahmed said.
Edited By Marley Pope and Dan Aulbach