Nada Al Bedwawi and Alia Al Shamsi made history this month when they became the first Emirati women to represent their country at swimming’s World Championships.
The results may not have been spectacular but their participation in Kazan transcended what took place in the pool. Whether they realise it or not, the two young swimmers have became the latest pioneers for women’s sports in the Emirates.
The experience has left them elated and humbled in equal measures.
“My experience in Kazan was such a wonderful and fruitful one. I came away with a lot of ideas for my swimming practice and how to improve my records in the future,” said Al Bedwawi, 18. “It was a golden chance for me to meet those world champions and to be close to them, like the Egyptian champion Farida Osman. It gave me a boost and a push to be one day like her. The experience made me so proud to represent my country as the first UAE swimmer.”
For Al Shamsi, 15, the World Championships were a bit of a shock, albeit a welcome one.
“It was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “It made me realise what I am up against and how I have to take my training more seriously in order for me to get to a level where I can compete against world-class athletes and achieve something for my country.”
Al Bedwawi swam in the 100-metre breaststroke and Al Shamsi in the 100m backstroke. Neither was able to qualify for the semi-finals against the world’s best.
The notion of Emirati female swimmers taking part in an international event would have been fanciful even a decade ago. Culturally, attitudes are shifting, and Al Shamsi and Al Bedwawi are playing their part.
“Support from parents and family is what opened doors for female swimmers in the UAE,” Al Shamsi said. “Without the support from them I don’t think that anyone would have given thought to the concept. I think cultural attitudes are definitely changing since the UAE government started supporting gender equality.”
“The support I got from my mother was great,” Al Bedwawi said. “She devoted herself to me. She was facilitating every difficulty I faced and was encouraging me all the time, especially in those minutes when I felt really down and I thought I couldn’t continue. She was there to tell me: ‘You can do it, Nada’.”
The younger swimmer believes that while things are changing for the better, there is room for improvement.
“I think that the UAE Swimming Federation is trying to do their best to equalise the opportunities the men and women have,” Al Shamsi said. “However, I feel like some people are yet to accept the idea of breaking gender boundaries in this sport.”
According to Al Bedwawi, the twin factors of cultural acceptance and excellent role models are the driving force for the emergence of Emirati female athletes.
“The best way to improve women’s swimming standards in the UAE is through changing the mentality of people, towards accepting that national women can take part in any sport, and demolishing the obstacles that they may face,” she said.
“But let me admit one fact: if I didn’t get the full support of my family I would be nowhere.
“We can encourage conducting swimming competitions in the schools, increase the awareness about the importance of swimming for a female among mothers,” she added. “It may sound difficult but it is not impossible, especially because our female leaders support us, like Sheikha Fatima, Sheikha Hind and Sheikha Maitha.”
Swimming may still be in its infancy across the Emirates but major sponsors are slowly being attracted to the sport. Swimwear brand Speedo have seen enough progress to sponsor the UAE national team and see cultural taboos steadily fading.
“It is so encouraging to see Emirati female swimmers taking part in the World Championships, and really enjoying themselves,” a spokeswoman for Speedo told The National. “They are no different than swimmers from around the world. They wear the same costumes and from a very young age you see great training facilities here being shared by boys and girls.”
The next major competition for Emirati swimmers is the Fina World Cup event in Dubai in October.
The biggest swimming meet of all, the Summer Olympics, represents another goal for Al Bedwawi and Al Shamsi. Each country is eligible to enter one male and one female swimmer in the Rio 2016 Olympics, even if no one in that country has a qualifying time. Fina, the sport’s organising body, makes the choice.
As for targeting the Rio Olympics, Al Shamsi’s answer was short and to the point: “Definitely.”
Al Bedwawi calls it the ultimate “dream”.
The road to Kazan had been a long one for the two Dubai natives.
Al Shamsi has been swimming from a very young age, but took up the sport competitively when she was 11, before joining Al Wasl Club in 2014. Al Bedwawi started swimming at six but then took a break before returning to the sport seriously four years ago. She joined Al Nasr’s swim club only this year.
Despite taking part in several regional tournaments, the step up to international level for both was always going to prove taxing.
“The preparation started one year ago, by monitoring my diet, daily swimming practice with concentration in the speed, increasing my general body fitness,” Al Bedwawi said. “Getting nearer to the event, the training increased to twice per day. Even in the Holy Month of Ramadan training never stopped and continued in a camp organised by UAE Swimming Federation at Hamdan Sport Complex.”
As is becoming customary before big events, the federation would provide a major step up in training programmes.
“In the weeks before Kazan I started training with the UAE national team instead of privately,” said Al Shamsi. “I did this so I could compare my swimming to the others in my team and improve my times.”
Still, little could have prepared either for the challenges ahead, but the young Emiratis were keen to use the opportunity as a learning experience.
“Racing against some of the best swimmers in the world was really a great a challenge for me,” said Al Bedwawi. “To win the race was not required at this stage, but I was asking myself how to be like them one day.”
Few could have expected more considering it was their first appearance at this level and taking into account the strength of the fields they were up against.
Some areas of improvement are obvious. In Kazan, for example, it was noticeable just how much physical strength plays a part in success and the Emiratis said they had room for improvement there.
“Certainly, increasing the strength of the muscles through regular training in the gym or with a personal trainer is fundamental for any swimmer,” Al Bedwawi said. “It will increase her or his tolerance and improve her or his records.”
More venues, such as the internationally known Hamdan Complex, have popped up in recent times, but it would be a stretch to say that swimming is a major sport in the UAE, and certainly not for females.
“Actually, females in our community are less supported than men,” Al Bedwawi said. “I tried very hard to overcome all the difficulties that I faced, to reach this level today.”
That these two young swimmers have reached this far is in itself an achievement, and the UAE Swimming Federation will hope that this awakening of sorts for the sport continues.
There are positive signs. Al Wasl, Al Nasr and Al Ain are leading the way in producing Emirati swimmers; Hamdan Complex has been a game-changer, holding several Fina events in the last few years; and Abu Dhabi has been awarded the 2020 Fina Short Course World Championships.
Above all, it is the governmental funding that has opened doors for the likes of Al Bedwawi and Al Shamsi.
“It has given me the chance to compete internationally on a great level with the support of my country, no matter the outcome,” Al Shamsi said. “And with this kind of support I think that women in the UAE will get inspired to at least try the sport.”