First published in the Oct. 9 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
It was quite the summer for Hanna Barakat. Despite not participating in the past two track and field seasons at Brown University, the 22-year-old sprinter managed to compete alongside the world’s best athletes on the biggest stage in all of sports.
Barakat, who graduated from Flintridge Preparatory School in 2017 and often trained at Glendale Community College, represented Palestine in the Tokyo Olympics during the summer, fulfilling a dream she’s had since she was a child.
“That was always a goal of mine,” Barakat said. “Growing up, the Olympics was always the bar in my household.”
Such a bar was set high by her father, Mohammed, a Los Angeles-born Palestinian who competed for the United States in field hockey during the 1984 Olympics. A natural runner, Hanna Barakat excelled at Flintridge Prep, a small private school in La Cañada Flintridge that boasts cross-country and track and field programs often ranked among the best in the CIF Southern Section. She was a two-time Prep League MVP, won 10 league crowns and broke school records in the 200- and 400-meter dashes.
That success, along with her stellar academic performance, earned her an opportunity to join the women’s track team at Brown University, where Barakat continued to excel athletically as a freshman by winning races in multiple invitationals. She broke the school record in the 4×400 relay as a sophomore, but the following two years weren’t easy. The 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Barakat opted to take a gap year in light of difficulties presented by the coronavirus.
“I’ve gone through two serious injuries and four different coaches, but I think throughout that experience, I really learned the importance of the mental component and developed an individualism and self-reliance that has allowed me to excel on and off the track,” Barakat said.
She also dealt with being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system, but it didn’t discourage a stalwart Barakat from pursuing her dream.
“It has definitely shifted how I approach the track and how I approach recovery,” the standout sprinter said. “I’m still adjusting. That’s the reality of dealing with a chronic disease. It isn’t easy in an athletic setting, but I think that has allowed me to surprise myself in overcoming those challenges. It’s allowed me to understand my body in new ways and my lifestyle with a different type of intensity that allowed me to excel on the track.”
During her gap year at Brown, Barakat returned home to work with Cedric Hill at GCC. Hill, whom she describes as her “rock,” oversaw her training when she was in high school.
As Barakat’s strength — physical and emotional — grew, so did her ambition and confidence.
“I wanted to compete for my home country of Palestine,” said Barakat.
She noticed the state of Palestine’s athletic roster lacked female runners and contacted the athletic federation via Instagram earlier this year.
“I remember thinking I had a really unique opportunity to potentially inspire young Palestinian athletes, to be a role model and to also set national records,” Barakat said. “So I reached out and let them know I was an athlete in Southern California and of Palestinian descent.”
It didn’t take long for Barakat, who was born in the U.S., to get a response from the Palestine Athletic Federation.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” Barakat said. “I didn’t really know what it would bring, but I was just excited to represent Palestine at any capacity.”
The federation invited her to participate in the Arab Athletic Championships hosted by Tunisia in June, an opportunity Barakat didn’t waste. She set national records in the 100, 200 and 400 and became the first Palestinian sprinter to compete in the finals.
“It was a really inspiring and fulfilling moment to come together under the sport of track and field in ways that the occupation doesn’t allow,” said Barakat, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. “That was a wonderful experience.”
Little did she know that it was only the beginning of her journey. After arriving home from Tunisia, Barakat received a phone call from the federation, letting her know that the Olympic Committee saw her performance.
“They invited me to compete in Tokyo, which was a mere three weeks away,” Barakat said. “Obviously, my answer was yes. I was honored.”
Though she had little time to prepare or even process what had transpired, Barakat arrived in Japan with more pride and joy than nerves and jitters. She said walking onto the track was “a surreal experience,” but she managed to keep herself calm and focused.
“I remember that moment before the race, I had a bit of serenity I hadn’t previously experienced,” said Barakat, who ran in the 100-meter race. “I think it was having the Palestinian name on my chest, knowing that in of itself was an accomplishment. Representing Palestine [in the Olympics] was a win, regardless of the outcome. Having that mindset removed external barriers and helped me race to my best ability.”
Barakat placed fifth in the preliminary round and missed advancing to the semifinals, but her time of 12.16 seconds was a personal best and national record.
The performance not only affirmed that Barakat belonged as an athlete, but also as a Palestinian.
“It’s a fulfilling experience that I’m continuing to process,” Barakat said. “Growing up in the diaspora, most Palestinians struggle with their identity with a homeland that often many can’t return to. It really fills this void in myself in terms of my identity to be able to represent a national team with such pride and also come to terms with what that means to represent the country and not necessarily live there. It’s part of the unfortunate reality of the Palestinian condition.”
It also helped Barakat better understand her father and his experience.
“It got me thinking of my father’s footsteps, assimilating to the U.S. and having him compete in the U.S. Olympic team is sort of the pinnacle of assimilation,” she said. “Having me as his daughter compete for the homeland is a beautiful element to my experience.”
Barakat isn’t resting on her laurels and wants to build off the remarkable year to help the Brown Bears.
“I want to make it to the finals and to score at the Ivy League championships,” she said.
The young runner also has set even loftier goals beyond college.
“I’ll hopefully be representing Palestine in the world championships, and I’m thinking about [the 2024 Olympics in Paris] and the feasibility of it,” Barakat said.