The Asian Games in Hangzhou next year remains top priority for the UAE women’s national team and coach Polyana Lago is confident the additional 12 months made available following a change to the calendar will help the team get stronger.
Lago, a four-time world champion, has already produced results with Mahra Al Hanaei winning silver when jiu-jitsu made its debut at the Asian Games in Jakarta 2018. That was followed by a bronze double by Shamma Al Kalbani at last month’s World Games in Alabama.
With the Asian Games in Hangzhou pushed back by a year to September 2023 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Brazilian is making maximum use of the time to get the Emirati female fighters in top shape.
In Jakarta, the competition for female athletes was limited to just two weight divisions. But this time the number of gold medals on offer has been doubled with the 49kg, 51kg, 56kg and 63kg categories.
“The rescheduling of the Asian Games by a year has given us more time to prepare and to improve our girls’ world ranking points,” Lago told The National.
“We have a squad of 14 in training out of which eight will be picked with two entries in the four weight divisions.”
To improve their JJIU (Jiu-Jitsu International Union) world ranking points, the national women’s team will participate in the Balkan Open followed by the German Open, both in September, and the World Championships in November.
“High ranking points mean our girls will be placed better in the Asian Games, and also count towards qualification for the 2025 World Games,” Lago said.
While the Asian Games remain their immediate priority, the 2025 World Games in Chengdu is also in the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s (UAEJJF) priority list.
“The Asian Games and the World Games are the biggest goals of our federation,” Lago said.
“We have already submitted the proposal to our federation to work with the U16 and U18 age groups so we can have the maximum number of athletes qualify for the 2025 World Games.
“We have three years to have the girls qualify for all the weight divisions. This project has to start as soon as we get the green light from the federation.”
Lago, 42, has competed 10 years in the UAE after joining the Jiu-Jitsu School Programme founded by the UAEJJF in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Education Council in 2008. She has witnessed the transformation of the sport first hand.
“When I first arrived here jiu-jitsu, particularly for the girls, was at the infancy stage,” she recalled.
“I started in a school in the Al Yaha area in Al Ain. We taught girls the basics and competitions were based on the basics. The fights got over with one take down because the girls didn’t have any floor movements at that time.
“I didn’t expect to be teaching girls who had no idea of the martial art. I was struggling for a few months because everything was different for me – dealing with girls with different lifestyle, culture and teaching them jiu-jitsu for the first time.
“The first few months were very hard. Then I started learning about the Emirati culture and the best way to educate them in combat sports. As time passed by, I really started to enjoy my work."
Lago was promoted as team leader and then as a supervisor in the Al Ain region. She took a key role in setting up training programmes in 15 schools. In 2016, she was appointed women’s national team coach on a three-year contract.
After completing her term as the national team coach, Lago was posted in Ras Al Khaimah as part of their school programme. She returned as the national coach on a new contract in 2021.
“I have seen jiu-jitsu all over the world and the change that has taken place among the Emirati girls is amazing,” she said.
“I see the technical levels improve massively with some of them competing outside the country regularly. In my opinion, it’s a huge achievement in 10 years.
“In more recent times, some of the girls have adopted a professional approach for the sport. We have coaches, fitness trainers, physiotherapist and nutritionist all through their training and preparations for competitions.
“The girls have a good idea of being a professional athlete. I have seen their lifestyles change both on and off the mat.”
Lago singled out Al Kalbani, 19, who returned with a silver from the Rio Grand Slam last week, as someone pursuing the path to becoming a black belt champion.
“Shamma lost her final by a point in the last three seconds,” the coach said of her last competition.
“She returned from the World Games having won double bronze in the 63kg and open weight, and to reach the final at the Rio Grand Slam two weeks later was an outstanding performance against high-level opponents in Brazil.”
Having said that, Lago has some concerns that many girls reach a certain level and then stop to pursue their own careers or settle down for a married life.
“It’s a cultural barrier and a very sensitive area to deal with,” Lago said. “The majority of the girls stop sports once they complete their academics to either work full time or get married.
“We can’t change the culture overnight, but I can see it change for some who may want to continue as a professional athlete.
“However, I don’t think that’s an issue at this point because it’s only 10 years since the Emirati girls were introduced to jiu-jitsu. What they have achieved during this period is already an accomplishment."
Lago believes that will change over a period of time, perhaps in the next 10 years, as Emirati athletes compete as professionals.
“As a coach, I don’t want to see someone work all the way up to a good level and then suddenly stop. Here the lifespan of a professional female athlete is from 14 to 25," she said.
“If you look at the physiology of a female athlete, she reaches her peak from 23 to 33. I hope we can push the girls to go a little bit more, perhaps up to 30.”