For many budding athletes, the chance to compete at the Olympics is merely a pipe dream. One that, despite how much hard work they put in, will mostly remain unattainable.
However, for two young Emirati swimming stars, the opportunity to test their mettle on the world’s biggest sporting stage is just weeks away.
On Friday August 5, both Nada Al Bedwawi and Yaqoob Al Saadi will walk out into the world-famous Maracanã Stadium for the opening ceremony of Rio 2016, flanked by their cohorts in the UAE team.
Aged just 19 and 20 respectively, the pair represent both the present and future of the sport in this nation. Determined and driven, these two young athletes know well the hopes that rest on their shoulders, but as Al Bedwawi points out, each of them have the mental fortitude to deal with such expectation. “I do experience pressure at times, but I manage to get over it right away, whereas Yaqoob is very calm and focused,” she tells Time Out.
“You can’t help but get a little nervous before events, especially at national competitions where you have rows of people watching and cheering, and this can be a little nerve-wracking for me. But Yaqoob isn’t like that. This doesn’t seem to affect him at all.”
Indeed it seems Al Saadi’s laid-back nature could prove a help rather than a hindrance to him achieving his future goals, starting with Rio next month where he’ll compete in the 50m and 100m backstroke. He holds the national record for both, but is hoping to improve on those times at the Games. “I’m determined to go out and set new personal bests every time I race – not only improving for myself, but for the country and the GCC region as a whole,” he says. “I’m using this as a stepping stone towards the next Games and focusing on the next four years before Sochi.”
Both swimmers are quick to play down their chances in Rio and UAE coach Eetu Karvonen is keen for them to remain grounded, yet focused. “They are very easily motivated to improve themselves, but we need to see the bigger picture and look at the next four years, not just these Olympics,” he says.
“I tell them to go and learn everything they can from these Games and use that to their advantage for the next four years. The Olympics is a whole other level of competition and it’s very hard to do well in your first one. But if you get to experience, the next time you go you will be better prepared for it.”
Despite holding the UAE’s 100m backstroke record with a time she clocked at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, last August, Al Bedwawi admits she was a little taken aback when she received the call-up to the Olympics where she will compete in the 50m freestyle. “I was very shocked, actually. I did not see it coming, but I feel like I’m ready for it now, ready to go and represent my country,” she says.
“I’m also doing this mainly to encourage other girls to take up the sport. There aren’t many girls on the UAE national swimming team. My little sister’s now training – she’s eight years old – and I’m hoping to inspire more swimmers to join us. Hopefully by the next Olympics we’ll have a more competitive and stronger team and many more swimmers.”
And the eloquent teenager, who is combining her passion with a biology degree, is not resting on her laurels. She is adamant that Rio is just one part of her masterplan. “We’re not going to stop after this. It’s not like we’re going to go there and compete and they say, ‘Okay, bye’,” she says with a smile. “It’s going to be the first step towards becoming a world champion. I’m hoping at the next Olympics, I will become the first UAE woman to win a medal.”
And with such strength of character, it would be hard to argue with either’s chances of making a splash on the biggest sporting stage, be it this summer or in four years’ time.
Al Bedwawi and Al Saadi are sponsored by Speedo. Visit www.speedo.com for more.
Three olympic sports to try
Emirates Golf Club
Dust off your clubs this summer as the club has a number of deals including practice packages at The Academy.
From Dhs760 (four 30-minute lessons and a month’s range access). Until September 17. Emirates Living (04 417 9999).
Al Qudra road cycle path
Measuring almost 100km, this desert track is proving one of the most popular places to cycle in Dubai. Most arrive at base camp between 5am and 7am to beat the heat and enjoy one of the best sunrise views the city has to offer.
Free. Al Qudra Road.
Round 10 boxing club
Learn the ropes at the UAE’s only gym exclusively for boxing. You can work on your fighting technique, or if you prefer non-contact, sign up for a boxing workout instead.
From Dhs60 per technique session. Al Quoz (04 338 0101).