SAN DIEGO — All Zeina Bawab wanted to do was to study and swim in peace. But growing up amid the civil strife in Beirut turned even those seemingly simple desires into difficult tasks.
More times than Bawab can remember, she and other students at American University, where she studied mathematics and competed on the swimming team, were forced to leave and the school closed because of bombing by warring Christian and Muslim factions.
"It was very dangerous," Bawab, 23, said of attempting to go to school. "I'd hear this (student's) dead and that one's dead and I said, 'Oh, no.' Sometimes I couldn't go to swim because of all the troubles.
"I came over here because of the war," Bawab said. "My father wanted me to come over here. He said: 'If you want to swim over there, you can swim. If you want to study, you can study.' "
Since arriving in San Diego from Beirut three years ago, Bawab has studied and swum. In peace.
She received a scholarship from the Hariri Foundation in Beirut, which pays for her tuition and gives her a small stipend to help with expenses.
Bawab's swimming has improved tremendously. She is now Lebanon's top female swimmer and is her country's sole representative in the women's swimming events at the Asian Games in Seoul, South Korea, this month. Bawab was also just awarded her undergraduate degree in computer sciences from Coleman College in La Mesa and plans to return to the trade school to earn her master's degree.
Bawab's brother, Wissam, moved to San Diego six years ago and is now an American citizen, something she hopes to become in the near future. When she first moved here, Bawab joined the Coronado Swim Assn. and later joined Swim San Diego, where she still competes, when her coach took a job with a team in Mission Viejo.
"I was really slow," Bawab said. "The difference between here and Lebanon is a lot. I felt like I should quit swimming. I was 21 years old and I thought I was going to be really old when I got good.
"I went to the coach and said: 'I want to be a fast swimmer. What should I do?' "
Jeff Milton, her present coach, told her to work out twice a day and get on a weight-training program.
The regime is starting to pay off.
"I feel like I'm really improving," Bawab said. "I can feel it in practice now." And she can see it in her times.
Bawab competes in the 100-yard butterfly and 100- and 200-yard freestyle. Last year, her best time in the butterfly was 1 minute 25 seconds; in the 100 freestyle, it was 1:15. She has knocked 15 seconds off her time in the butterfly and has got her 100-yard freestyle time down to around 1:04.
Bawab has primarily swum in yards because most American pools are designed for this measure, though internationally the events are held in meters. Her fastest time in the 100-yard butterfly, her best event, converts to a 1:24 in meters, according to Milton.
Although Bawab is well above a sub 1:10, which is considered world-class caliber, her goal is to set records for Mediterranean swimmers in general and Lebanon in particular. She needs to knock 12 more seconds off her fly time to set a record in her country.
And Bawab feels she can do it.
"Nothing is impossible," she said. "I never imagined doing some of the things I have. If you work hard enough, you can get it."
Bawab's dedication began paying off several months ago and in June she was named Swim San Diego's swimmer of the month.
"It was at that point that I really started to be good," Bawab said. "I used to be in the end lanes because I was not that fast. Now I swim in the first lanes."
"Her improvement has been dramatic," he said. "She has a fantastic attitude about wanting to train and work hard. She attempts to get 11 workouts in a week."
Bawab gives Milton a lot of the credit for her recent success.
"When I came here I had no confidence in myself, my swimming," she said. "He (Milton) told me I can be something. He built confidence in me."
Bawab will take her new-found confidence to Seoul, her first international meet. She will also get a taste of what it will be like to compete in the Olympics. As her country's top swimmer, Bawab will most likely represent Lebanon in the Games.
But home is where the heart is. And Bawab's is in San Diego.
Bawab will be going to Beruit to join the rest of the Lebanese swim team that will travel to Seoul. It will be the first time she has been home since coming to the United States. And although her mother has visited her in San Diego, Bawab has not seen her father since she left.
"Sometimes it's difficult to swim knowing the problems in Beirut. I smile on the outside, but on the inside. . . ."