After Missing Out On Tokyo, Yaseen El-Demerdash Keeps Working

by Karen Price

Yaseen El-Demerdash competes at the 2022 Para Swimming World Series in Indianapolis. (Photo: Peter Bick)

Yaseen El-Demerdash spent his whole life believing that his disability wasn’t going to limit him.


It was something his parents instilled from the time he could remember, and something he proved to be true growing up and as he developed as a competitive swimmer.


Nonetheless, when he was told by classifiers just months before what he hoped would be his first Paralympic Games that his disability, in fact, did not impact his swimming enough to allow him to compete in the breaststroke, it was devastating. 


“I still don’t understand, I just know I can’t swim breaststroke or IM (in Paralympic competition) for the rest of my life, the two events I love and made me enjoy swimming,” said the 18-year-old from Overland Park, Kansas. “But it is what it is. Win some, lose some.”


El-Demerdash was born with Poland syndrome and is missing muscles and bones on the right side of his body, including his arm and hand. His mother put him in every sport she could when he was little, he said, and swimming was one they knew he could continue as he grew and his differences became more pronounced. He started swimming competitively when he was 6 or 7, and while he didn’t exactly love it from a young age, it did help him develop confidence.


“I actually kind of hated it as a kid and every year I’d say, ‘I don’t want to do it next year,’ and (my mom) would say OK, then I’d think about the friends I had on the team and say, ‘OK, I’ll do it another year,’” he said. “It was the same cycle over and over.”


As a high school freshman, he saw the first evidence of his hard work paying off. He’d tried all year, he said, to qualify for the state meet in the 500 freestyle and consistently was about 10 seconds off the time he needed. 


“Then the last meet of the season I went in and was like, ‘I’m gonna put it all in the pool,’” he said. “One of the upperclassmen told me later that he slowed down so I could pace off him, and I was able to push and dropped 15 seconds from the time I’d been doing all season. I went from being not even close to qualified to swimming at state, and when I was there I dropped about another 15 seconds. That’s when I started to see I could do something with this and it motivated me to work hard.”


El-Demerdash didn’t get involved with Para swimming until his sophomore year when a coach suggested it would be a good opportunity. Meanwhile, he became a high school All-American in events including the 100 breaststroke, was named the Kansas City Star Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2021 and, having skipped a grade, graduated high school at 17.


It was last spring, however, at a Para Swimming World Series meet in Lewisville, Texas, that he had the rug pulled out from under him. He was already internationally classified, he said, so even though Para athletes must periodically be retested he didn’t expect what happened at that meet. Initially, he said, classifiers wouldn’t even let him progress from the physical exam to the swimming portion of the process because they determined his disability didn’t affect him enough. He appealed and got to swim, but ultimately was told he couldn’t swim breaststroke or, by extension, the individual medley.


“After watching me swim they determined my disability didn’t affect me enough to be fair to the rest of the competitors,” he said. 


El-Demerdash competed at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials, but in strokes in which he hadn’t devoted nearly the time that he had to his two specialties. He didn’t make the Paralympic team that traveled to Tokyo. 


Yet the story isn’t over for El-Demerdash. 


An outstanding student who had his choice of colleges, El-Demerdash is wrapping up his freshman year on a full scholarship at the University of Kansas. He’s a mechanical engineering major but also wants to study business so that he can create a robotics startup after graduating.


El-Demerdash is also back in the pool training after taking a six-month break following Paralympic Trials. He’s swimming with a club team called the Lawrence Aquahawks and has already broken several of his own American Para records this spring, including the S10 50-meter butterfly.


Although his experience last summer wasn’t what he’d hoped, he remains focused on what’s to come. He wants to qualify not only for the 2024 Paralympics, but also the Olympics. 


“I could have sulked about it, and I probably did for a while, but I still had goals, I still had work to do and I could have said they cheated me but that wouldn’t have helped me,” he said. “I had a quick turnaround and I had to put in the work. I wasn’t where I wanted to be (at the Paralympic Trials), but it was a lesson and an experience that’s going to motivate me for the next two years.”


Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.