Athletes with special needs make history at tough Hatta endurance race

It is the first time a group of people with disabilities in the Emirates were part of the adventure challenge

A dozen athletes with special needs celebrated after finishing a gruelling endurance challenge in Hatta at the weekend.

They cycled across mountainous terrain for 13km, set off on a trail run for 5.5km and kayaked for a kilometre along with more than 300 people from across the country in the Garmin Quest race on Friday.

It was the first time a group of people with special needs in the UAE took part in a demanding adventure sport challenge.

What they have achieved is truly exceptional

They navigated the rugged terrain, cut across green plantations and paddled across Hatta Dam cheered on by coaches and buddies they were paired up with.

"What they have achieved is truly exceptional," Hollie Murphy, founder of non-profit Heroes of Hope, told The National.

"It was a very emotional day. Everybody in this city should focus on what they can do, not what they cannot. People need to see what people of determination can achieve once they are given the support.

To prepare for the event, the athletes cycled at Dubai’s Al Qudra track, worked out in the gym up to three times a day and participated in running events, fitness challenges and kayaking at Hatta.

Triathlon and cycling coaches volunteered to help them train.

Kenyan athlete Aarti Shah, 27, finished the race with a smile on her face like all the other first-time triathletes in the Heroes group.

“I did it. In the beginning was a bit tough,” said Ms Shah, who has Down syndrome and enjoys weightlifting. Her mother, Avani, said speaking at Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi last year motivated Aarti.

“Her goal is to represent the UAE. She is training in weightlifting and is really dedicated,” she said.

Dinal Ekanayake first rode a bicycle three months ago, when Ms Murphy received a call from the organisers inviting them to the event.

“I love sports. I feel so excited,” said the 14-year-old Sri Lankan athlete, who enjoys playing tennis, cycling and horse riding.

Buddhika Ekanayake, Dinal’s mother, said daily swimming, sailing, and football helped him deal with his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and mild autism.

“He rode a cycle for the first time in his life recently and it was amazing,” she said.

Temperature checks and social distancing were followed at the event, and vehicles and race marshals supported the athletes throughout the route.

The Heroes group was selected as a start-up incubator programme last year by Maan, the Authority of Social Contribution, established by the Department of Community Development in Abu Dhabi.