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Georgia Tech swimmer returns from Lebanon after a year in limbo

Sara al Khatib is competing for Georgia Tech again and pursuing an engineering degree. (Credit: Georgia Tech photo)

Her visit home to Lebanon was supposed to last five days.

It was December 2017, and Sara al Khatib had just finished her last workout with the Georgia Tech swim team before she and her teammates would scatter for the holidays. She bolted back to her dorm room after practice, stuffed some outfits into a small carry-on bag, then took off for the Atlanta airport. She was exhausted from an intense bout of training but eager to begin the long journey back to Beirut for what she thought would be a few relaxing days with family.

Up to that point, life mostly had gone according to Sara’s well-deliberated plan. One of the few elite female swimmers in Lebanon, she had moved to the United States alone at age 16 to pursue her dream of earning an engineering degree from an esteemed American university and taking her swimming career as far as it could go. Her parents had devoted countless hours and dollars to this shared dream to give their daughter an opportunity that didn’t exist in their home country.

But that dream was thrown into jeopardy during Sara’s return home.

The day after Christmas, Sara awoke to see her mother silently waiting in her bedroom, face consumed with worry. Sara instantly knew something was wrong and pleaded for her mother, Rola, to speak. When she did, the words crushed them both: “Your student visa has been canceled.”

Rola explained that Sara’s father, Hussein, had just received a call from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut informing him of the news. Sara needed to apply for a new visa, an unpredictable process that could take weeks or months.

The Georgia Tech sophomore spiraled into a dizzying panic. Her coaches expected her to be back on campus in a mere three days for practice. Her professors expected her to be in class a few days after that.

How could she get back to the life she had built and the dream that now seemed a world away?

Forging her own path

Rola al Khatib still cheers daughter Sara from afar. (Submitted by Sara Al Khatib)

Sara followed her older brother into the pool when she was 5 years old. But beyond those early years, as her passion and experience in the pool grew, the option of following in another’s wake dissipated. Being a female swimmer in Lebanon meant forging her own path.

“(It) wasn’t really an encouraging thing,” Sara says. “I’m one of the few female swimmers around, and I think I might be the only Muslim swimmer that kept on swimming for a longer period. Most of the Lebanese swimmers, once they reach a certain age, would stop, either because of religion, education or because the community has its own reasons.”

Yet Sara had no intention of stopping, even when it meant practicing alone in an empty pool. But what she did have was a steady intrinsic motivation propelling her forward. “I think it’s the satisfaction and reward I feel after accomplishing something,” Sara says. “Just doing things that I think people haven’t really done before, I think that was a big part of it.”

And aside from one grandfather who, due to religious reasons, disapproved of her swimming, Sara had overwhelming support from her family. Academics always came first, but Sara’s parents saw the value in sports, too. They drove her around to workouts and attended every meet. They celebrated together when Sara set Lebanese records in distance freestyle events and competed in Arab championships.

The elder al Khatibs also taught Sara and her brother, Karim, that better opportunities exist outside of their country. So at 16 years old, Sara researched options and discovered an exchange program that would place her with a host family in Connecticut.

There, she completed her final two years of high school and competed on the swim team.

Following in the footsteps of her father, a civil engineer, Sara applied to American colleges with strong engineering programs, with hopes of continuing to swim wherever she landed. When she was accepted into Georgia Tech and offered a spot on the swim team, she knew even before she visited campus: “This was where I wanted to be.”

Weeks turn to months

After learning her student visa had been canceled, Sara wasted no time applying for a new one. She told herself she likely would miss just a few days of the semester.

But her five-day stay in Beirut turned into five weeks and then five months. Sara enrolled in two classes at the University of Beirut and worked with Georgia Tech officials to ensure she remained eligible. She regularly communicated with Yellow Jackets compliance officials and her swim coach, Courtney Shealy Hart, who assured her that her spot on the team would stay open.

As she desperately waited for answers in those early months, Sara refused to let herself reacclimate to life in Beirut. She woke up, went to class, didn’t study, didn’t participate, went home, watched Netflix. She couldn’t bear to step foot in a pool, dejected by the thought of swimming alone. “I could not swim,” she says, “because if I did, I would feel everything I lost.”

She missed her teammates but felt their support from afar. When an email directed Sara to empty her Georgia Tech dorm room, her roommate and teammate, Kira de Bruyn, packed up Sara’s belongings and transported them to her parents’ basement.

By summer, Sara began to give up hope that she’d ever return to Georgia Tech.

“I have to accept the fact that I might not be going back,” she recalls thinking.

So she signed up for a full semester load that fall in Beirut, started socializing with old and new friends, and began running with a group for exercise. She was adapting to her new life, and her happiness had returned.

This time, she was in a computer science class in late November 2018 when she got the news from her mother via text: “Sara, you got your visa.”

Suddenly, 11 months after it had closed, the door to her dream had swung back open.

Back to the pool

An emotional year ended in an emotional decision. Sara finally felt at home again in Beirut, but she knew she could not pass up the chance to finish what she had started at Georgia Tech.

“I think I, and my parents, sacrificed a lot to get to where I am,” Sara says. “I knew I couldn’t miss an opportunity like this.”

She returned to Georgia Tech in January 2019. She dove back into training after a full year off, redshirting that season to allow time to restore her endurance and speed. She had a long way to go. Her teammates lapped her continuously on her first day back in the pool. Some days she felt like she was swimming backward. But Sara stuck to her training with persistence and patience, and was bolstered by the unwavering support of her team.

“I just think she’s resilient,” says Hart, her coach. “Not many people can go through that with no timeline and no answers as to why. I’m not sure she ever got answers to what happened. … That takes a special person. I’m just really proud of her and happy that she’s on our team.”

Now in her junior season, Sara is swimming and studying with a newfound gratitude. She looks forward to graduating with that coveted degree in engineering and hopes to obtain a master’s degree after that.

And despite the challenges faced during her year in limbo, she acknowledges the personal growth that came from it, too.

“I’m proud how I’ve been able to kind of bounce back from the things I’ve dealt with,” she says. “I might not have bounced back as soon as it happened to me, but learning something from each phase was definitely a good thing.

“It definitely changed me as a person.”

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