As part of our build-up to the Tokyo Olympics we will be profiling Arab athletes and para-athletes, as well as those from the Mena region hoping to make it to this summer's Games
With tears in her eyes and a look of disbelief, Hedaya Malak did a cartwheel to celebrate clinching the taekwondo -57kg bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics. It fulfilled a promise she made to her friends that she would bust out the acrobatic move should she make the podium at the Games.
She then rushed to hug her family in the stands at the Carioca Arena 3 and did a lap of honour while carrying the Egypt flag.
Those scenes are considered some of the most memorable moments in Brazil that summer for Egypt and the Arab world, and with good reason.
Malak’s victory over Belgium’s Raheleh Asemani four and a half years ago made her the first Egyptian woman to win an Olympic medal in taekwondo. She was one of just three athletes from Egypt and one of six Arab women to step on the podium at those Games.
The then 23-year-old Malak had come agonisingly close to reaching the final in Rio but missed out a chance to fight for gold or silver by falling to Spain’s Eva Calvo via a deciding golden point.
“I was going for the gold in Rio, and I had confidence in myself because I had defeated both (finalists) Eva Calvo and Jade Jones in the past. So when I lost by one point in the semi-finals I felt like my dream was over and that I lost my chance to win gold,” Malak said in an interview with Sky News Arabia.
“But my coach kept telling me, ‘We are here for a medal and we will get it, it’s ours’. So when I won the bronze medal, for me it was the most special moment of my life and that’s why I was crying.”
Rebounding from setbacks is certainly Malak’s forte.
An ankle injury during last February’s Olympic continental qualification tournament in Rabat nearly cost her a place at the Tokyo Games but the Egyptian came through, defeating Kenya's Everlyne Aluocheolod to make the final and punch her ticket to a third consecutive Olympic Games.
Malak’s journey post-Rio saw her move up a weight class, from -57kg to -67kg – a transition that proved challenging in more ways than one.
"I had to start from zero, to build up my ranking in the new weight category and that took a long time," Malak, 28, told The National in a phone interview.
“I had to play many competitions in -67kg. At the beginning honestly it was tough because I wasn’t used to the weight, people were stronger, taller, everything… the advantage was for them. But at least I was a bit faster.
“Thankfully it went well. I got some points that got me into the top 32, which qualified me for the Grand Prix series. I lost my first three grands prix in -67kg but then after that I won a bronze medal in Rome in 2019, which helped me a lot in the rankings.
“It helped give me a push, like it’s not so hard, and that I could actually get a medal in -67kg. It’s not as easy as -57, the opponents are much tougher and more experienced and much taller, but I needed to change my style of playing, that’s what I learned.”
Finding other taekwondo practitioners in her weight class to train with in Egypt was also a problem, which meant Malak had to leave in search of better practice conditions. She ended up in Serbia, where she spent 18 months training with acclaimed coach Dragan Jovic.
“I cannot deny it was a real challenge. I had to live abroad, away from my family, away from my friends, just to have a good training camp and good athletes to train with,” said Malak. “I had no choice but to travel.
“It was difficult but I used to visit every few months for a few days. But other than that I was keeping busy, you had training twice a day, and I had many competitions, travelling from Serbia to Latvia, Bulgaria, Japan, Poland, I went with them everywhere. I used to meet the rest of my team at competitions.
“I learnt a little bit of Serbian, I had to get used to living there, it was a totally different new experience, but it was nice.”
Malak first got into taekwondo when she was seven years old, following in the footsteps of her older brother. By the age of 14, she was already competing on the senior level; by 18, she was an African champion and at 19, she made her Olympic debut in London.
When the world entered a global shutdown during the pandemic, just a month after Malak had secured qualification for Tokyo, the Cairene transformed her living room into a training space, equipped with mats, weights and a human-shaped kicking pad provided by her sponsor.
The postponement of the Olympics was yet another curveball thrown her way, but Malak welcomed the additional time, which she needed to fully heal from her ankle injury and prepare well for her third trip to the Games.
In October, she got married to Egypt’s beach volleyball player Abdelrahman Fayed and joined a training camp with the national team the following month at the Olympic Centre in the capital. Her training stint was cut short though as she suffered a bout of coronavirus, but that didn’t stop her from clinching the bronze medal at the Turkish Open in Istanbul two months ago, which signalled her return to competition.
Asked what she considers to be her biggest strengths as an athlete, Malak said: “Putting in the hard work, and my mentality. Because if you don’t have the mentality of, I don’t care who I’m going to play against, I don’t care who is bigger than me, who is taller than me, who is stronger than me, I don’t care who is going to be more experienced, I don’t care if she’s a world medallist or a gold Olympic medallist, you have to have that kind of mentality – that you respect your opponent, but you respect yourself as well and you respect what you’re doing and all the effort you’ve put in.
“She put in the hard work, but so did I, and that I gave everything I could give. For me it’s all about giving your 100 per cent and to have the mentality that God will always reward you for that effort. And to put faith in yourself and in your team, because you cannot succeed alone. Team work, hard work, and faith. And keeping your eye on the goal, irrespective of the obstacles.
“I got so many injuries and I could have decided to quit, I had hand surgery, I had an ankle injury right before qualifications, I twisted my ankle and I couldn’t walk. That was tough. But you have to have the mentality that no matter what happens, I will reach my goal insha’Allah.”
That mentality is not easy to come by, especially when you grow up in a region that hasn’t produced that many female champions.
“Yes, in our culture, we always see that there are other people better than us,” she acknowledges.
“Maybe I get it from my mom, she used to always tell me, ‘whatever you want to do, you can do it, you can be whatever you want to be’.
“I see it as there’s no difference, she’s human, and so am I. She’s training and I’m training and there’s no big difference, if she can do it, I can too.
“You have a plan, you have a strategy, and you have to be unafraid. You cannot belittle yourself. That comes with confidence in your abilities. I know what I’m good at, and I will capitalise on it. You believe in what you have, maybe your opponent has this or that; okay, what am I going to do with what I have?”
During her early years in the sport, Malak never imagined she’d be able to make money from practicing taekwondo but her exploits in Rio helped raise her profile back home and she soon got an agent and signed multiple sponsorship deals.
She’s also a source of inspiration for countless hijabis worldwide, as she showed them she could make her way to the Olympic podium while competing in a head scarf.
“A lot of people messaged me after the Olympics telling me, ‘You’re my idol because you’re wearing the hijab and are playing your sport’. That I didn’t take off the hijab for taekwondo. I felt that a lot of people were inspired,” she said.
While she maintains that “football still gets all the attention in Egypt”, Malak knows there are many eyes on her at the moment, especially in an Olympic year.
It would be understandable if she felt the weight of added pressure on her shoulders in her quest to better her performance from Rio, but Malak is taking a level-headed approach when it comes to her ambitions in Tokyo.
“If I think of it as, ‘if it’s not the podium then it’s a disaster’, then I’ll be in a disaster. I cannot think that way, that if I don’t get a medal it’s going to be the end of the world,” she explains.
“It has to be like, I’ll do my best in training, give my 100 per cent and all, so that the day before competition I can say that I gave everything I have. As for the result, that’s in God’s hands. I have to have the faith that it will come, but if it doesn’t, then I’ve done my best.”