Off piste with the UAE’s future Winter Olympic stars

Could the Emirates ever win glory at the Winter Olympics? True, the country is better known for desert dunes than snowy peaks, but that’s no deterrent, as Anna Zacharias and Asmaa Al Hameli find out.

Fatima Al Ali in action for the Abu Dhabi Storms ice hockey team. The 24-year-old Emirati was a photographer for the UAE Ice Hockey Federation and Abu Dhabi Ice Sports Club, before strapping on her skates to play. Christopher Pike / The National
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Suhail Al Odadi, 13, Saudi Arabia

Bored during the summertime, the 12-year-old Saudi Suhail Al Odadi sought refuge in the chill of Ski Dubai at Mall of the Emirates.

Brimming with confidence, Suhail shot straight down the slopes. He was kicked out after his first run.

Suhail was hooked. The pupil at Wellington International School now aspires to be the first Saudi skier at the Olympics.

He reasons that his competition will be slim in Saudi Arabia, where “skiing” usually refers to driving a car on two wheels.

“I tried football,” said Suhail. “Football’s really hard to get into [and be successful], but not a lot of people have the chance to ski.”

Taught by friends and graduates of the mall’s ski school, Suhail is on the hunt for a full-time coach. He trains 12 hours a day, three times a week in freestyle and racing.

With eight months’ experience, he styles himself on his Canadian ski cross hero, the late Nik Zoricic.

His family, he says, are “totally supportive”.

Suhail has yet to ski outside a shopping mall.

“[To] get a medal, it’s going to be hard work,” says Suhail. “I’ll have to move somewhere where I can ski every day.”


Ali Al Mesmari, 23, United Arab Emirates

“You know, I like to try something new,” says Ali Al Mesmari, Fujairah’s first snowboarder.

Al Mesmari prepares for Dubai like he’s packing for Colorado. He trades his cotton kandura for warm layers and winter jackets, swaps his ghutra for a woolly beanie and packs a snowboard into his four-wheel drive before he makes the one-hour drive from the mountainous coastline of Fujairah to the Mall of the Emirates. By the time that he reaches Ski Dubai, he looks like he would be more at home at an Aspen resort than a Fujairah coffee shop.

“It’s the fastest sport that’s growing in the UAE,” says Abdulla Al Shamsi, 17, a pupil from Sharjah who became a Ski Dubai regular three years ago. When he started, few of his Sharjah friends joined. There are now more than 30 who board and ski regularly. Dubai and Sharjah athletes are starting younger and younger.

Al Mesmari believes that he’s the first snowboarder of Fujairah. “I didn’t see any others,” he said. “I don’t think there are any.”

He drives to Dubai several times a week for two-hour boarding sessions, when he’s not busy playing football or horse riding. Al Mesmari travels to Switzerland this month to snowboard outdoors for the first time.

Figure skating

Zahra Lari, 18, United Arab Emirates

Zahra Lari performs death drops on ice, launching into dizzying spins and double axel jumps with power and grace.

“When I do competitions outside of the country people are like ‘You have ice rinks?’” says the Emirati figure skater Lari. “They don’t really think that we have ice rinks in a desert country.”

Having recently returned from her first International Skating Union competition, in Slovakia, Lari has her sight on the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Having finished 12th at the Bratislava competition, Lari and her Hungarian coach reworked her routines for the World Junior Figure Skating Championships competition in March, where qualification is based on points given for the difficulty of steps, spins, jump height and ­finesse.

Lari is the first internationally competitive Emirati figure skater. “We have a few younger ones who are just starting, so once I stop we do have other people who are going to compete internationally,” she says.

Lari, who started skating at the age of 11, trains six days a week, on and off the ice.

“Some people are saying ‘Why is she doing that? A girl shouldn’t be doing that, a girl should stay at home’ and all that kind of thing.

“I don’t listen to that. A girl doesn’t have to stay at home and do ­nothing.”

Ice hockey

Fatima Al Ali, 24, United Arab Emirates

Since childhood, Fatima Al Ali enjoyed watching ice hockey movies. She also practised sports every day in her neighbourhood.

Along with sport, she also had a passion for photography. “My mother loved photography and she got me my first camera when I was ten,” says the Emirati.

Blessed with a great photography skill, Al Ali thought the best way to merge her passion for sport and photography was to become an amateur sport photographer.

In 2008, she came across a hockey-tournament brochure in Abu Dhabi. She set out to watch the tournament and take pictures at the Abu Dhabi Ice Rink.

“One day, while I was taking pictures, an organiser asked why I was taking pictures and for whom. It was for myself,” she says.

After that incident, she was appointed as the official photographer of UAE Ice Hockey Federation and Abu Dhabi Ice Sports Club.

Abu Dhabi Storms ladies’ team was formed in September 2010, but Al Ali didn’t join immediately because participants were learning how to skate.

“I already knew how to skate, so I waited for the team to get back from a Hong Kong tournament in 2011 and join,” she says.

In its three years of existence, the ladies team has taken first place in a Bangkok tournament and the Hong Kong Hockey 5’s.

Today, Al Ali can’t imagine her life without hockey. The feeling of gliding on the ice gives her an enormous pleasure.

“Hockey is my escape. My team is my second family.” ⋆ Asmaa Al Hameli


Faisal Faisal, 33, Iraq

Faisal Faisal’s quest to represent Iraq at the Winter Games will resume next year when he returns to the frozen track.

Faisal, who is based in Dubai, represents Iraq in skeleton, sledding headfirst down a twisting ice track at speeds that can exceed 150kph.

His Olympic dream was kindled in his home in Baghdad, where he watched the opening ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

The elite footballer and sprinter decided that if he wanted his country represented, he’d better do it himself.

After moving to Australia for his undergraduate degree, Faisal attempted – with limited success – skiing, ski jumping and snowboarding. A promising start with speed skating ended when he was told that he could not represent Iraq because it had no ice rink.

He appealed for advice and support from sports federations, former Olympians, national teams and even the Iraq Reconstruction Task Force.

“You can’t go and fight a war that’s a mess,” says Faisal. “I thought the way to do something positive was to go and carry a flag.”

His luck changed with an anonymous call. “Try skeleton,” said the voice.

Faisal had never heard of it.

Within weeks, the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation had Faisal at Lake Placid, a two-time host of the Winter Games, learning to slide headfirst at 120kph. “I’d be lying if I say that I wasn’t scared. They said ‘Look, lay there and just go’.”

He trained for five seasons and ranked 28th in the 2009 World Championships. He was one rank short of qualification for Turin 2006 and two ranks short of qualification for Vancouver 2010.

Faisal, 33, resumes training in the US next season.

“Let’s put it this way,” he says. “The silver medallist at Torino [Turin] was 42.”

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