Guest column: Olympic swimmer Nada Al Bedwawi on changing perceptions about women in the sport

The 19-year-old Emirati student was the youngest member of the UAE team at the 2016 summer Olympics in Brazil, an experience she describes as a whirlwind of excitement.

Nada Al Bedwawi, 19, is a student at New York Universtity Abu Dhabi, and spends two to three hours every morning training in the water. Christopher Pike / The National
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As a child, I was always very sporty. I was into football, basketball, horse riding and tennis for a brief while, as well as swimming. I liked horse riding and swimming the most, but I felt I would excel more at the latter. My mum encouraged me. She had wanted to take up swimming herself when she was younger, but she couldn’t because of the stigma attached to Emirati females in the sport. She was the one who carried me and motivated me to go on, and I definitely think perceptions are now changing.

My aunt, Hanan Al Muhairi, who was one of the first female Emiratis to start horse riding professionally, was an inspiration for me, too.

Before I started swimming professionally three years ago, I was only swimming once or twice a week. I never set a goal in my mind that I’d enter any international competitions. Just three months before the Olympics, when the swimming federation told me I was going to Rio, I was overwhelmed with mixed emotions – mainly happiness.

I think being the flag-bearer at the opening ceremony is the greatest honour for any athlete from any country. I loved the dancing, the music and the atmosphere, which highlighted the cultural side of Brazil. As the youngest member of the Emirati team, the Olympic experience was, for me, a whirlwind of excitement and feeling overwhelmed by everything. I came third in the heats for the 50-metre freestyle with a time of 33.42 seconds – the best in my career.

I narrowly missed out on a place in the semi-final, but, honestly, my main aim was just to go there and break gender barriers, to pave the way for other girls in the UAE. And I feel I have achieved that.

Since I’ve been back, several Emirati girls have contacted me on social media asking for guidance. My advice to girls wanting to pursue swimming as a professional sport is to join a local club. They can then gain experience and be discovered at local and national competitions.

Now I’m back at university and I’ve changed my major from biology to art and art history. I like painting a lot – I’m not a great painter, but I’m trying. I do it to relax. Like swimming, art is something new and different for many people in the UAE, who are still getting used to the concept.

I will hopefully carry on swimming as a profession – I’m still trying to figure things out. There is not as much support in the UAE for female swimmers as there is for male swimmers, but I’m working on that.

So far I’m not following any specific diet, but I have scheduled a meeting with a nutritionist. He’s prescribing some supplements and planning my meals, so hopefully that will improve my swimming. Of course, I’ve always tended to stay away from junk food.

I have two sisters and one brother – Noura is 9 years old, Saif is 5 and Reem is 3. They, and my mum, were so happy and supportive that I went to Brazil – and now they’ve all taken up swimming, too.

As told to Jessica Hill