From her castle an ice princess can see Korea 2018

As Zahra Lari, an 18-year-old Emirati figure skater, goes through her spins and leaps, the 'ice princess' can see 2018 Korea from the top of her castle.

 At first it was a hobby. Now Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, 18, trains at Zayed Sports City ice rink twice a day, six days a week. Christopher Pike / The National
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“It’s great to watch,” said the young Emirati with a big dream. “I’m thinking I might be in their place in four years’ time.”

When Zahra Lari sits down Thursday night to view the climax of the women’s figure skating competition at the Sochi Games, she would be forgiven for allowing her mind to drift a little. To dream that big dream.

Lari, the UAE’s first international ice skater, has her heart set on making the 2018 Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, South Korea. It would be a remarkable culmination of an unlikely journey, one that started belatedly in Abu Dhabi but has gathered speed over the past few years.

“First up, let me say that age 11 is definitely late to start skating,” the 18-year-old Emirati said. “Usually, skaters start at three or four, but this shows that I’m dedicated. I worked so hard to get to this level.”

Nicknamed Ice Princess – from the Disney film that got her hooked on ice skating – Lari said commitment to the sport has turned her into the skater she is today.

“At the beginning, it was just a hobby, something to do after school,” Lari said. “For the first three years I trained maybe once a week.”

For the past three years, however, she has trained twice a day, six days per week. “If I was still training maybe once a week, I would never have made it this far,” she said. Those long hours on Zayed Sport City’s ice rink eventually paid off. “In 2012 we had a coach come over from Romania, and she said that I was ready to compete internationally.”

That coach was Noemi Bedo, and under her watchful eye Lari has steadily been making up for lost time. International competition, as the Gulf’s first and only figure skater, followed.

All her overseas competitions had “a special meeting”, Lari said.

“In Italy it was the first time that the interviews started and I was getting attention,” Lari said, recalling the 2012 European Cup at Canazei, where she finished in the top 15 in the junior category.

Her elegant attire, including hijab, meant she stood out from the competition. On the ice, her performances soared.

Next up was the European Criterium Cup, in Budapest, where she finished first in one of the categories, “which was a highlight”.

The improvements continued. At the Skating Union competition in Slovakia last month, Lari posted her highest competitive score yet to finish 12th.

Those experiences have whetted her appetite for more success. Lari is a keen student of figure skating, inspired by the best male as well as female performers.

“When I started out I liked Sasha Cohen, but she’s retired now,” Lari said of the 2006 Olympic silver medallist from the US. “And Evan Lysacek of the US came to our rink in Abu Dhabi and asked to skate with me. He also showed me his 2010 gold medal. It was so heavy.”

At Sochi, the Canadian Patrick Chan, who took the silver medal, remains a favorite for Lari, but she is also keeping tabs on one of the newer sensations.

“The ladies competition will be an interesting event,” she said ahead. “In the team competition the 15-year-old [Russian] Julia Lipnitskaia won a gold medal, the first time that has happened.”

Lari says she looks up to many skaters, and she is consistently striving to improve her technical skills, in particular the jumps and their multiple rotations.

“I have recently been able to conquer the dreaded double Axel and am now working on making my triple Salchow consistent,” she said. “My triple toe loop and loop are also close. It takes a lot of effort but I am positive that I will conquer these as well.”

As a sideline to her skating practice, Lari has often taken up other disciplines to improve her balance, technique and poise, such as ballet and gymnastics. “But not seriously,” she is quick to point out. “My focus is on skating.”

The UAE’s accreditation by the International Skating Union now paves the way for Lari to target the 2018 Olympics.

Watching the action at Sochi has put the size of that task in context.

“It makes me realize how hard I have to work to get there,” she said. “It’s not easy to say or do this.”

But she is willing to dedicate her life towards the ambition of becoming the first Emirati to take part in a Winter Olympics.

“I have to live, eat and sleep skating in the next four years to make it to the 2018 Olympics.”

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