Hattan Alsaif is not like most 21-year-old women in Saudi Arabia.
For starters, she is the first Saudi female to win a gold medal in Muaythai, a combat sport that uses stand-up striking along with various clinching techniques, at the International Federation of Muaythai Associations World in Bangkok earlier this year.
“This was something unheard of,” she tells The National of her victory over Elizaveta Zavarzina in the Under-23 female division final to clinch gold. “Even for my family as it is not something common in our culture.”
Secondly, she openly talks about her battle with depression.
“My past and things had never been easy for me … up until Muaythai,” she adds.
Events in Alsaif's past has both hardened her resolve to succeed and left her permanently scarred. She was orphaned as a child after the death of her parents and raised by her grandmother. Her will to succeed is an inspiration for those suffering with family loss and mental health problems.
“I want people who are suffering to know never to lose hope, to try to smile. I know how they feel and how they're suffering,” she says.
Alsaif credits physical exercise with helping her through her struggles. “I always liked a physical activity like dancing, running – anything that can make me move and make me feel free was what I wanted,” says the King Saud University graduate.
Alsaif started boxing training at her local gym in Riyadh and soon became interested in Muaythai. She recalls watching male practitioners for the first time, saying: “I was so inspired by them. Up until then I was only boxing. I asked my coach [if I could join], and his response was 'Yes, why not and maybe you'll be better than them one day'. That's what I kept in mind since then.”
After her higher education studies, Alsaif took up a job in a bakery – “I was so happy working there, to move freely in the kitchen, help others” – but the more entrenched she became in Muaythai she was encouraged by her friends to dedicate herself to the martial art full time.
“It was hard to quit and not have a source of income. My friend's never left me and supported me throughout,” she adds.
Just five days after her training began in Muaythai in 2021, there was a national tournament for women's boxing in Riyadh. Things did not work out as well as she hoped and Alsaif was eliminated in the second round.
“My opponent was much better than me,” she admits. “I remember going to the bathroom and crying. I said to myself in that moment 'I am going to come back and win it and I am going to take the gold!'”
Alsaif began training three times a day for three months and entered the 2022 tournament where she won the gold she promised herself in the women's 45 kilogramme competition. She became an inspiration to young girls in the kingdom.
Her improvement over the past two-and-a-half years was recognised by the Saudi Muaythai Federation who awarded her most promising female fighter last year.
“I spend everything on Muaythai, be it clothes or supplements – every waking moment is about Muaythai!” adds Alsaif.