Omar Amr is a former water polo player. He played for the United States national team at the 2004 Summer Olympics. The first time Omar Amr got in the pool in front of the Olympic water polo coach, he said it was possibly the most humiliating moment he had ever experienced. He hadn’t made the invitation-only tryout list for the U.S. team, and it was beyond embarrassing to just show up unannounced.
He was a recent UC Irvine biology graduate who would eventually attend Harvard Medical School, finish his medical residency at UCI and go on to become an Orange County emergency room doctor and start his own business.
But in the late 90s, none of that was on his mind. He just wanted to compete in the Olympics.
“I was kind of the kid who showed up but didn’t get invited to the party,” Amr said. “I wouldn’t leave and I just sat there on the deck, just watching them. It was so humiliating, but I had to try.”
He was feeling impetuous. He thought he could change coach Ratko Rudic’s mind if there was a chance to be seen in action. After sitting on the sidelines the entire practice, doing nothing, he made a run for it – or rather, a swim.
The other athletes were swimming sets of 200 meters. Amr knew he had the ability, the strength, and the speed. He walked to the edge of the pool and got in the water. Everyone there already knew he wasn’t on the list.
“(Ratko’s) just looking at me, and I told Ratko ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to swim this set,’” Amr said. “When I finished, Ratko turns to the other coaches and says, ‘Why did you not invite him for this camp?”
It was a bold move and wasn’t the first time Amr had done something like that. And it wasn’t the last. Eventually he would be faced with choosing between going to Harvard and competing in the Olympics. Instead of choosing one or the other, he chose both – at the same time – which required him to be on a different side of the country every week.
Omar Amr grew up in Fullerton, attending Sunny Hills High School. His father had been a swimmer for the Egyptian national team. The Amr kids practically grew up in the water, swimming since they were babies.
In junior high, Amr was in a water polo club program and in high school he joined the school team. Early on he was small – 5-feet 1-inch, 91 pounds and a self-described late bloomer. In the course of a year in high school, he gained weight and sprouted up to 5 feet 8 inches, eventually topping out at 5 feet 11 inches.
For college, he initially wanted to go to Berkeley, but the family didn’t have the money to send him away. They pushed him towards UCI. It was closer to home and came with a better price tag. It was a late decision, so he missed the try-out for the UCI water polo team, but he was self-assured that he could simply walk on.
In a portent of what he would later do to get on the Olympic team, Amr showed up at the water polo practice and told the coach, “I’m going to play for you.”
He got in the pool. Within five minutes, he got punched in the face and it broke his nose.
“I got beat up; they let me know where I stood,” said Amr.
Amr thought he didn’t stand a chance at the team – until they broke from game-practice and started doing swim sprints. He showed his speed in the water and from that day on, every day and night was book-ended with UC Irvine water polo.
Legendary UCI coach Ted Newland would turn Amr’s life around.
“He would force me to go to his house to study at night. He was an old school guy … if it wasn’t for sports (with him) I wouldn’t have graduated. Period,” Amr said.
After college graduation, Amr spent his time coaching and teaching water polo and swim teams, and while he loved the work and the travel, it didn’t pay much.
He decided he wanted to go into medicine, but first he wanted a shot at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. After crashing the tryouts, he had actually made the U.S. team.
His first pick was UCI for medical school because that would keep him in Southern California and close to Olympic water polo training.
“My goal was to just get into UCI, (to) stay in Southern California. I only applied to very good schools, kind of joking, maybe just six or seven outside of California,” Amr said. “I thought that being at UCI was going to be my only chance to train (for the Olympics).”
Of those other “good schools” that he had applied to, Harvard was the first to accept him. Then came a letter from Yale, and UCLA. UCI was the last one to send an acceptance letter.
“It was a very emotional decision for me,” Amr said. He even called an admissions counselor to ask for advice: Should he follow his dream for the Olympics, or take the unexpected chance of a lifetime to go to Harvard Medical School?
The counselor told Amr that if it were his son, he’d tell him to go to Harvard. His friends told him he should go to Harvard. His mentor told him to go to Harvard.
“A million answers that were all the same thing – I’ve got to go,” Amr said.
He accepted, and Harvard gave him a one-year deferment for the Olympics.
With Olympic training in full swing, Amr practiced with single-minded fervor. When he wasn’t in the pool he was on the mat, cross-training for strength and endurance.
Then one day, while training away from the pool, the worst happened – he blew out his knee. He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus. He was out. Even with the strongest wraps for his knee, he couldn’t compete.
He had nine months of physical rehabilitation ahead of him and his chance at the 2000 Olympics was gone.
There was no swimming, just physical therapy and weight training. At the end of the summer, the games having passed him by, he packed his things and moved to Boston for Harvard.
“I mean, there I was, on one leg, all depressed in a full leg brace in this little dorm room. I’m there on scholarship and this is a financial aid dorm room, so it’s this little box … with a small plastic mattress and nothing in it. It’s like a jail cell and I’m on one leg, hobbling around,” Amr said.
He had nothing to do. His rehabilitation was coming to a close, so he decided to do what he always did – go for a swim. After asking politely to be allowed in the pool, the Harvard coach let him swim alongside the team. Amr was at first tentative, then shocked at what happened when he got back in the water.
“My body had recovered and I had gotten so much stronger. I was doing things I had never done before.”
Amr slowly started working his way back into the world of the water, first on the swim team and then coaching for water polo. Everyday he would work out, go to class, work out some more and swim.
Eventually, the time for the national team training camps came around. He wasn’t invited. He wasn’t surprised.
“Nobody thought I was going to come back – nobody knew that I had come back,” Amr said.
Over winter break, Amr came to California to visit family and touch base with coach Ratko Rudic. Ratko told him he thought he might be able to make the team. But Amr lived in Boston and was now well-entrenched in medical school. The national team met every weekend to practice. They struck a deal – he would do both, every week.
For the next two years, every Friday after class Amr would hop on a plane to California, practice all day Saturday and Sunday and then catch a red-eye flight back to Boston.
“I just really had no life, I don’t exaggerate that. I don’t think I could do it again – I don’t think I could survive it again. I wasn’t getting much sleep, I didn’t make any friends in my class, had no fun. All my classmates are making friends, great friends for life and I didn’t know anybody because I had no time to meet people,” Amr said.
Finally, the time came for him to ask a big question – could he be granted time off from school, again, for a second chance to go to the Olympics? Coach Rudic was taking a chance on him, an older player who had recovered from an injury who probably wouldn’t get a third shot at competing in the Olympics.
It was difficult to ask for it, considering what happened the last time around, but it was worth it. Harvard granted him another reprieve. He packed his bags, and in the summer of 2004, Amr went to Athens, Greece, and competed in the Olympic Games. The U.S. team finished seventh overall, and although they didn’t take the podium, Amr said it was one of the most amazing experiences of his life. After the years of build up, let downs, the injury and rejection, it finally happened. He’s now primarily an emergency room doctor, with a medical concierge business on the side. He says working in emergency rooms sometimes comes more easily than Olympics training – he thanks learning discipline in sports for making it easier. “It’s really hard to tell you how hard it was to make the comeback,” Amr said. “I think back to that day, getting in the pool, and it was worth every second of humiliation. That was my life dream.”