The Olympics have long been based on an inspiring ideal: bringing together athletes from around the globe to compete against one another other in contests of athletic excellence, far from the world’s politics, divisiveness and strife.
In the real world, of course, international political realities often intrude on that Olympian ideal.
But that doesn’t stop athletes like Azad Al-Barazi from pursuing it.
Al-Barazi, an L.A. County ocean lifeguard since 2007, will be swimming in this summer’s Olympic Games, which start August 5 in Rio. But there’s a twist: Al-Barazi, who holds dual U.S.-Syrian citizenship, will be competing for Syria, the war-devastated country where both of his parents were born.
The University of Hawaii graduate is self-funding his Olympics quest, and is dedicating his effort to the people of Syria.
"What's going on in Syria is very tragic and heartbreaking. Anything that brings positive to the country of Syria is just inspiration," he says. "It's humbling. It kind of puts me in perspective, like how blessed I am to be here, and live here, and have this opportunity to be an American Syrian."
Before he set off for Rio, we spent some time with Al-Barazi as he trained at USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center with other aspiring medalists representing countries around the world.
This photo gallery and accompanying video offer a glimpse of what drives Al-Barazi and his fellow competitors to go faster, higher, stronger—all in pursuit of that Olympian ideal.