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SF’s record-breaking Olympic sprinter has retired at the age of 23

Olympian Hanna Barakat ran in 2020 Summer games in Tokyo for Palestine. Here, the LA-born athlete is seen running at SF’s Buena Vista Park. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Hanna Barakat has always been fast. As a 7-year-old in a ponytail and tiny cleats on her Little League soccer team, she was abnormally speedy—like Dash-from-The Incredibles speedy. She looked forward to the yearly mile test at school when she’d smoke all the boys in her grade.

“Can’t wait to watch you in the Olympics,” her fourth grade teacher wrote in her yearbook. 

In 2020, the LA-born, Palestinian American sprinter made her Olympic debut for the Palestinian National Team, setting the national record for the women’s 100-meter sprint at 12.16 seconds. 

Now, less than three years later, Barakat has decided to box up her track spikes for a slower life in San Francisco.

“Can’t wait to watch you in the Olympics,” Barkat's fourth grade teacher wrote in her yearbook. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Back in college, though, it looked as though Barakat might never compete at all—much less in the Summer Olympics. During her first race on Brown University’s track team, she pulled a hamstring. That led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the brain and nerves. Doctors told her there was a chance she would never run again. 

“I thought to myself, ‘The bar for competition is so low right now,’” she said. “I think removing those expectations is just what I needed.”

She continued training and ended up on two all-school records that year. 

Olympian Hanna Barakat runs at Buena Vista Park on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

In a 21st century turn of events, Barakat reached out to the Palestinian Athletic Federation on Instagram and joined the Palestinian National Team at the Arab Athletic Championships in Tunisia. Four weeks later, she got a call asking her to join them at the Tokyo Olympics.

“My experience at the Olympics was unique,” said Barakat, whose family wasn’t allowed to join her in Tokyo due to pandemic safety protocols. (Her father, Mohammed Barakat, is also an Oympian, having played field hockey in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.)

Barakat was one of 15 athletes on a quiet Boeing 747 to Japan and competed in a near-empty stadium meant to hold 80,000 people. 

In spite of the international health crisis, Barakat said she still had an incredible experience and made friends for life.

“I stepped into this role that was much bigger than me,” she said. “And honestly, I was reminded how loved Palestine is globally.”

As just one of five athletes representing Palestine, Barakat said she felt a heavy responsibility for a nation whose very flag is being confiscated by Israeli police

“I remember my coach telling me, ‘Your role at the Olympics is so much bigger than the time you run,’” Barakat said.

She broke the national record anyway.

Hanna Barakat of Team Palestine competes in the Women's 100-meter preliminary round heats during the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 30, 2021. | Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Olympian Hanna Barakat ran in the Summer Games in Tokyo for Palestine. The Los Angeles-born athlete is now transitioning away from that life. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Now, Barakat is stepping back from her athletic career. 

“My decision to retire does not change my love for the sport or passion for helping other Palestinians reach their dreams,” she said. “I’m excited to pass the baton to the next generation of Palestinian athletes.” 

When she’s not reaching out to fellow Palestinian athletes with Olympic dreams to offer her support or at her full-time job doing research in web3 governance, Barakat likes to be outdoors or taking yoga classes.

In the last year, she ran a United Nations 5k in Daly City to raise money for Palestinian children and frequents Bay Area Palestinian eateries like Reem’s, Beit Rima and Mishmish. 

Like many active San Franciscans, Barakat hikes the trails near Baker Beach, takes long walks through the Panhandle—and tries not to worry about her time when she’s running through Golden Gate Park.