Saif Al Hashmi is no different to any other athlete – he always wants to win.
With 40 swimming medals from international and national Special Olympic Games, he now has his sights set on the perfect score in the bowling lane.
A contestant for the past 17 years, the competitive spirit of this athlete with Down syndrome remains high.
The Mena Games will be Al Hasmi’s comeback after a five-year break, and it will also be the first time he represents the UAE in tenpin bowling.
“I am going to Abu Dhabi. I want to win gold medals,” he says, dressed in a red UAE team shirt, gesturing to an imaginary ribbon around his neck. “I like swimming. Now I like bowling. I want to win gold medals in bowling.”
At a training camp in Al Ain, he focuses on the 10 bowling pins at the end of the lane. Then Al Hashmi, 31, bends slightly and with a relaxed swing knocks down all the pins as his coaches applaud and cheer.
In another lane, his teammate Salih Al Marri clenches his fist, pumps his arms and says he loves the game.
There is strong camaraderie around the bowling lanes. The team members clap each other on the shoulder to express sympathy for the rare gutter ball and wave their hands about to remind those who forget it is their turn.
To loosen up, the athletes stretch and vigorously swing their arms.
They have won medals in Athens, Egypt and Los Angeles. Some cannot travel overseas because of medical conditions but have earned medals in regional games in the UAE.
Their connection with their families is vital. Some need their mothers by their side through the training camp, while others call home several times a day.
“I love my family. I love my mum. She is beautiful,” Al Hashmi says.
He calls his mother with regular reports on his best scores and keeps her updated on his practice sessions and details of his day.
“We feel like we have a hero in our house,” says Sonia Al Hashmi, Saif’s mother and the founder of the UAE Down Syndrome Association. “He is our champion.”
The family turned to bowling knowing that their athlete enjoyed the sport.
“He started swimming when he was 4 and he is now making a comeback with bowling,” Ms Al Hashmi says. “Saif is a hard worker and loves the game. He calls me to say he has increased his score.
“He says, ‘Mum, I miss you. I played good.’ He tells me his full plan, when they leave for training, when they will return to the hotel and what time he will eat. He is a joy for me as a mother and for the whole family.”
Al Hashmi has been training for the past five years with his father, other athletes and friends from the association.
His siblings and parents drive to visit him during the two-week Al Ain camp but also give him space so he understands that he is in training.
“He does not depend on us but he knows we are around if he needs us,” Ms Al Hashmi says. “We have trained him to be independent. We don’t visit daily because we want him to feel that he is away in camp. Everyone is very excited about the games.
She describes the Special Olympics squad as one infused with elevated levels of enthusiasm and spirit.
“Saif has the same heart as when he started,” Ms Al Hashmi says. “They don’t grow by heart or by emotion. In Arabic, we call it a green, beautiful heart and I call them my happy athletes.”
National Editorial: Special Olympics Mena Games will inspire all who watch them
Tenpin bowling is one of 16 sports in which the UAE’s 180 Special Olympic athletes will compete, starting on Wednesday.
The others are athletics, badminton, basketball, bocce, cycling, equestrian, football, gymnastics, handball, power lifting, roller skating, swimming, table tennis, tennis and volleyball.
The overseas teams will start to arrive tomorrow after which batches will be formed based on the skill set of athletes.
More than 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from 31 countries will take part in Mena Games, ahead of the Special Olympics World Games to be hosted by Abu Dhabi next year.
The Bangladeshi athletes coming for the Special Olympics will be hosted in Fujairah and will play with legend Deigo Maradona in a unified football match.
This is part of a host town programme where delegations from different countries visit different emirates to experience local culture ahead of the Games.
Unified Sports is an initiative where people with development disabilities play with others.