Belgrade 2024: Alaa Maso to make more history with the European Refugee Team at the European Aquatics Championships

Published On: June 5, 2024

Credit to: Patrick Wallbaum Fotografie

Alaa Maso was eight when he first dreamed of competing at the Olympics after being inspired by Michael Phelps at Beijing 2008.

Since then, he has endured a battle for survival in Syria and a treacherous journey over land and sea to safety in Europe before his dream came true at Tokyo 2020.

Now, the 24-year-old is set to make more history when he represents the Refugee Team at the European Aquatics Championships in Belgrade where the pool programme runs from 17-23 June.

In a wide-ranging interview with European Aquatics, Maso recalls his journey from being a young child in Aleppo through to Tokyo and beyond.

Credit to: Christian Gold

Maso was introduced to the water by his father at four years old before joining his first club in Aleppo when he was six.

His first sporting hero was Ian Thorpe although it was not the Australian’s five Olympic and 11 World titles that made him stand out for the young Maso.

“The thing for me was his pretty cool swimming suits that go all the way up to his hand palms and down to his feet,” Maso told European Aquatics.

“I was always used to swimming in briefs and suddenly you see someone swimming with such a suit, and you’d be thinking ‘wow he looks like a ninja warrior or something.’”

Another hero came along in 2008 in the form of Phelps with swimming training abuzz with the American’s exploits at the Beijing Olympics, where he won eight gold medals.

It lit a flame inside the eight-year-old.

“That is how I got to know the Olympics and ever since then it was my biggest dream to go there.”

Credit to: Patrick Wallbaum Fotografie

When Maso was 12 Aleppo became a key battleground in the Civil War, the start of a brutal four-year deadlock.

In 2013/2014, thousands had fled while those who remained were focused on survival.

Despite their hopes for an end to the conflict, the family realised in October 2015 that “we were only lying to ourselves, and the situation is only getting worse.”

His older brother Mo was months away from graduating university after which he would conscripted to the army.

“So that’s why my father decided overnight – just like, pack your stuff and just leave. It’s not worth it, there’s no cause to fight for, nobody knows who is fighting who or what their fighting goal is,” said Maso.

“It all happened and in a couple of days we were out of Syria.”

Credit to: Christian Gold

The brothers travelled to Turkey where they boarded a boat built for 11 people with 40 others, watching as another was swept out to sea.

From there they made their way to the Netherlands, arriving in Zandvoort, where Maso caught the eye of three-time Olympic champion Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who sent him swim equipment.

After two months the pair moved to Alkmaar where the younger brother attended school and joined a swimming club.

The plan had always been to make their home in the Netherlands with their father, mother and sister set to join them under the family reunification programme given Maso was a minor.

However, after six months they were told they would have to go to Germany through which they’d travelled on their way to the Netherlands and given their fingerprints meaning their claim for asylum would not be considered.

Credit to: Patrick Wallbaum Fotografie

After first moving to Osnabrück in western Germany, the pair then settled in Hannover.

In early 2019 he started working with coach Emin Guliyev, a two-time Olympian, at W98 Hannover.

The freestyle specialist was awarded an IOC Refugee Athlete scholarship that same year and in June 2021 was selected to the Refugee Team for the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Recalling the moment, he said:

“The very first name was ‘Swimming: Alaa Maso’ and that moment I think is going to be one of the top five moments in my life.”

Since then, he has competed at three long-course and one short-course World Championships, most recently at Doha in February 2024.

There he met Phelps who had inspired him as a child back in 2008.

It was, he said, a dream come true.

“Suddenly Michael Phelps was there, and we sat in a room for over an hour, talking and he answered all our questions.

“I still can see it sometimes, I look at the photos and think ‘wow, I just sat three metres away from Michael Phelps.”

Credit to: Patrick Wallbaum Fotografie

Next up are the European Aquatics Championships in Belgrade where he’ll compete in the 50, 100 and 200 free with PBs of 23.00, 51.00 and 1:53.00 respectively.

“I’m really looking forward to it because it’s going to be a very special moment for me,” he beamed.

“It’s the first time I am going to compete at the European Championships with the best swimmers out of Europe.

“It’s going to be fun.”

After that, he’ll switch his attention to Paris 2024 and his second Olympic Games.

While his swimming career has soared, Maso hasn’t seen his family in person since he left Syria in October 2015.

His parents and sister moved to Turkey in 2017 before his father returned to Syria two years later.

Swimming though is a thread that unites them.

“I just keep feeling connected to my family through all the years I haven’t been seeing them since we left Syria.”