Alia Al Shamsi and Nada Al Bedwawi will set another milestone for UAE women in athletics
Emirati sports will take a big step forward at the World Swimming Championships on Monday when Alia Al Shamsi and Nada Al Bedwawi become the first UAE women swimmers to represent the country at this level.
They are part of a team that includes three men: Mubarak Al Besher, Yaqoub Al Saadi and Abdullah Hatem, who already has competed in the open-water 5- and 10-kilometre races.
On Monday, national attention will shift to the two young women as they enter heats in their respective events at the championships in Kazan, Russia. Al Bedwawi, 17, will take part in the 100m backstroke and Al Shamsi, 15, will take to the pool for the 100m breaststroke.
Amr Badawi, administrative secretary of the UAE Swimming Association, says he believes the added scrutiny will not detract from a day the women have long anticipated.
“They do feel the pressure as the first Emirati female swimmers ever to participate at the World Championships,” he said on the eve of their international debuts. “But they are very motivated for this step and they are looking for the future positively. They are feeling so happy, interested, excited and motivated.”
Emirati women traditionally have not competed in international swimming, but that will change on Tuesday thanks to support from the federation as well as from their families.
Their appearances in the pool in Kazan mark the latest sports breakthrough for UAE women. The last few years have seen a sharp rise in UAE women athletes participating at the international level.
Notably, the Football Association’s backing of the women’s game has led to women’s teams, from the senior level to Under 14s, competing at the international level. The senior side has a Fifa world ranking of 73, making the UAE the second-best Arab team, after Jordan at 53.
Also, Emirati women and girls have competed by the hundreds in jiu-jitsu thanks to extensive school training programmes and the example set by the likes of Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed, who took part in the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship last April.
Al Shamsi and Al Bedwawi will lead the way for aspiring female swimmers. Tough competition awaits both, but they are as ready as they can be following a rigorous training regime.
“Over the last few weeks, the swimmers have been at a training camp in Dubai,” Badawi said. “They took part in two training sessions per day, plus the dry-land training every day.”
Al Bedwawi will start in Lane 7 in the first heat of the 100m backstroke event. Her best time of one minute, 25 seconds is almost seven seconds slower than the second-last competitor, Roylin Akiwo of Palau.
Similarly, Al Shamsi, in Lane 9 of the 100m breaststroke first heat has a top time of 1:35, the field’s slowest by six seconds.
The numbers suggest that neither will progress from their heats, but their presence transcends statistics or medals.
In the past, it has been a struggle for Emirati female swimmers, and athletes in general, to be sportingly competitive for many cultural or religious reasons. Badawi says that there has been in a shift in attitudes in recent years, and parental approval has had a large part to play.
“The support they have received from their families is the key to success for both of them,” he said.
As for equal opportunities for female swimmers to develop, Badawi says it is no longer difficult for them to compete with the men in terms of access to training facilities and programmes. Al Bedwawi is a member of Al Nasr club, while Al Shamsi swims with Dubai neighbours Al Wasl.
“I think we don’t have this problem in UAE, and Dubai especially,” he said. “We have training facilities everywhere – in schools, clubs and at big sports centres like Dubai Sports City and Hamdan Sports Complex and also the ladies clubs in the UAE.”
Such facilities point to a brighter future for Emirati swimming, for both men and women, as do the increased number of swimming competitions hosted across the Emirates.
At the start of the World Championships in Kazan last week, it was announced that Abu Dhabi was chosen as host of the 2020 Short Course World Swimming Championships. The UAE Swimming Association will no doubt be raising awareness and increasing the number of training programmes until then.
Other swimmers may be inspired by the examples of Al Shamsi and Al Bedwawi, who themselves are young enough to represent the UAE for years to come.
“This is just the beginning, and the experience they will get here in Kazan is the target we have,” Badawi said. “We have a lot of goals for the future. We are thinking about the Asian Championships and also the Olympics next year in Rio 2016.”
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Published: August 2, 2015 04:00 AM