If you’ve ever wondered if life at the top of one’s sport gets easier as time goes by, squash world No. 1 Nour El Sherbini can assure you that it does not.
The 22-year-old Egyptian has extended her reign at the summit of the world rankings to 22 months, and counting. She has won her last three consecutive World Series tournaments – most recently claiming the Tournament of Champions in New York last week – and has reached the final in her last five events.
She surely does make it look easy. But El Sherbini would be the first to admit that the pressure grows exponentially the longer she’s at the helm, and explains the mental struggles she faced last year before getting back on track.
“It’s never getting easier, it’s challenging more and it’s getting harder actually. I keep playing tournament after tournament, thinking it’s going to get easier but it never does,” El Sherbini told Sport360 at the opening ceremony of the Arab Women Sports Tournament in Sharjah, where she was invited as an honorary guest.
“At first when I became world No. 1 I was like ‘okay, I’m there now, what’s next?’ I just went on to play another tournament. But last season, I lost all the tournaments I contest – I just won the World Championship.
“So in the summer I just trained more and I’ve been doing so well until now. We just started the second half of the season and in the first month, I couldn’t wish for a better start. I think it’s really going well until now, I just hope to keep going like this. I still have three more tournaments to go and I hope I can keep going.”
— PSA World Tour (@PSAWorldTour) January 26, 2018
El Sherbini saw her World Championship title defence end at the hands of fellow Egyptian Raneem El Welily in Manchester last December. She avenged that defeat in her next tournament though, taking down El Welily in the final of the Saudi Women’s Masters – the first professional women’s tournament to be held in Saudi Arabia.
El Sherbini was thankful she managed to rebound immediately from her World Championship disappointment, and was thrilled to be part of such a historic moment for Saudi Arabia. The tournament of course was not without its challenges.
“It was a historic event and I was really proud to be there, just participating in that event,” said El Sherbini.
“All of us, we didn’t know what to expect, it was the first tournament (in Saudi Arabia) and we knew we were going to face a lot of challenges there.
“Only women were allowed to come and watch us, so it was just us, the athletes, all of us in the same place. We weren’t able to take any pictures inside the court. First they said some of the players had to play wearing leggings, and others played with skirts. But skirts were fine since there were only women at the venue. It wasn’t televised… it was really challenging.”
Saudi Arabia has been trying to remove some of the barriers discouraging women from taking up sport, and the country recently allowed females to attend a football match, opening stadium doors to them for the first time.
التاريخ ٤ مصريين في نصف نهائي بطولة السعودية #مصر
— Nour el Sherbini (@noursherbini) January 10, 2018
The Saudi Women’s Masters was another promising initiative and El Sherbini says it was a step in the right direction.
“It was really a very good start and all the players were really happy, going everywhere with their abayas. They really enjoyed it and us Egyptians were really enjoying it, it was very safe. We didn’t have any problems there and the tournament was very successful,” said the Alexandrian.
“For me it was really important because it was just after the World Championship and I had just lost it. So it was really important to get back to training and go back to compete, it was really hard for me mentally. But I’m really glad that this is one of the reasons that helped me keep going, winning Saudi, then winning the Tournament of Champions (in New York). If I hadn’t gone back to training right away, it would have taken me longer (to bounce back). So I’m glad we had this tournament just after it.”
El Sherbini is the first Egyptian woman to win a World Championship (she won two), and is also the first to claim a British Open title. Her history-making feats have seen her become an icon for Arab women in sport and she recently won the Mohammed bin Rashid Creative Sports Award in the ‘Outstanding Arab Athlete’ category.
In Sharjah, she attended the opening ceremony of the Arab Women Sports Tournament, where 68 different teams from across the Arab world are competing across nine sporting disciplines.
El Sherbini is embracing her position as a role model for Arab women and encourages them to venture into the world of sport.
“I think there’s no better time than now because women’s sport (in the Arab world) is really on top now and it’s the time to get up and try something new and know that it’s your right to play sports, try to do whatever you want, just go for it and just try to enjoy it,” she says.
“I always feel like it’s a responsibility on me to attend these kind of events. People are always watching, and waiting for you, so you have the responsibility towards them, to be there, try to help as much as you can.”
The latest squash rankings, released on February 1, are led by three Egyptian women with El Sherbini at the top followed by El Welily and new world No. 3 Nour El Tayeb. It is yet another sign of Egypt’s dominance in the sport and El Sherbini is honoured to be part of this historic era of squash in her country.
“It’s really special. It’s our time now and we’re really enjoying it, enjoying being at the top,” she added.
“I feel we still have more time at the top and there are more good juniors coming up. It’s really special to have the top three, alongside with Nouran (Gohar) also in the top 10. Hopefully we can have more joining us. Also on the men’s side there are seven Egyptians in the top 10. I’m just really proud to be one of them.”
The fourth – and largest – edition of the Arab Women Sports Tournament (AWST) was inaugurated on Saturday at the Al Majaz Amphitheatre in Sharjah.
Taking place under the patronage of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of His Highness Ruler of Sharjah, Chairperson of the Sharjah Supreme Committee for Family Affairs and Chairperson of the Sharjah Women Sports Foundation. Themed ‘The World Is Your Court – Together Victorious, the tournament is hosting 68 clubs from 16 countries and 1,000 athletes and administrative personnel taking part – a 70-per-cent increase on the last edition.
Organised by the Sharjah Women’s Sports Foundation, the 11-day event runs from February 2-12, where the athletes will compete in nine sports, namely; basketball, volleyball, table tennis, fencing, archery, shooting, athletics, show-jumping and for the very first time Karate.
Representatives of the athletes, referees and judges took the athletic oath expressing their commitment to honest and fair competition as well as a true sense of integrity.
In his opening address, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad bin Sultan Al Qasimi welcomed all Arab competitors and guests to Sharjah, sharing the message of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, saying: “Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi’s thoughts share an immense pride towards what Sharjah has accomplished in its dedicated care and support towards the women in sports.”
He continued: “Her Highness extends her sincere gratitude to all the organisers, guests and athletes whose honor and fair play elevates the names of their associations and clubs. Her hope rests with all the best of results to all participants, knowing that together you can lead by example in success.”
Among the activities starting Sunday, the Jeddah United Club will face Kuwait’s Girl Club, while Bahraini Mawaheb Club will play against Somali Mogadishu Club, and Sharjah Sports Club for Women is set to face Jordanian Fuheis Club.
The competitions will take place in 10 venues around Sharjah.
He is 19 years old and has made history as the first-ever Lebanese cross-country skier to qualify for the Winter Olympic Games, having spent just two and a half years training in that discipline.
Samer Tawk is heading off to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics this month, representing Lebanon – a nation that has a rich history in alpine skiing, but not necessarily in cross-country.
Lebanon has sent athletes to every Winter Olympics since 1948 — except for 1994 and 1998 — but never in cross-country skiing.
Like the majority of his compatriots, Tawk initially took up alpine skiing, from the tender age of seven. But less than three years ago, he decided to switch disciplines and he realised a childhood dream when he clinched a spot at the Olympics at a qualification event in Turkey last month.
“I competed in five races in Turkey. It was great, every race was 15km and I was putting in everything that I have, my technique, my body, my strength, it was all combined together,” Tawk told Sport360 from the FIS Junior/U23 World Ski Championships in Goms, Switzerland.
“And after the last race, when I knew I qualified it was the greatest feeling. I felt like I achieved a life-long dream, it finally came true…
“When I started learning cross-country skiing, I was thinking about the Olympics but I wasn’t sure about it because I wasn’t that good. But I trained so hard, over the past year or so, I was training a lot and then I believed that maybe I could do it if I put in hard work. It wasn’t easy, it was so hard but I did it.”
Tawk has been a scout for 10 years and considers Lord Robert Stephenson Baden-Powell – the founder of the Scout Movement – a “great inspiration”.
The switch from alpine to cross-country skiing is no mean feat and the endurance required to compete in the latter is usually built up over years and years of training.
Tawk, who has qualified for the 15km freestyle event in PyeongChang, enjoys the “suffering” he has to go through in cross-country skiing. While alpine skiing involves slopes, cross-country is done on flat planes, which means all of the force needed to move from one point to another is produced by the body.
“What I like in cross-country skiing is that if you want to be good, you should never give up, and I like this. I like to suffer and you should like to suffer in the race, 15km and you put 96 or 95 per cent of your hard work from your body, it’s so hard to continue in the race, after the race you lie down on the ground, you’re so tired, you can’t breathe… I love these tough moments,” explains Tawk.
“There’s a huge difference between alpine and cross-country, which is much harder. Alpine skiing, you need big legs, big upper body, a heavy body, and it’s another technique, strong boots, heavy skis, and you don’t need endurance in it.
“Then I switched to a completely different sport. It’s light skis, light boots, and you need to have a light body, and you need a lot of endurance.”
Tawk grew up, and still lives, in Bcharre, a town located in the mountains in the north of Lebanon. He is the youngest of five, and has two brothers and two sisters, who all ski, but not competitively.
This is how he describes his training.
“In the summer you spend a lot of time on roller skis, you run a lot of hours, you go hiking in the mountains at high altitude and when the winter comes you should ski two to three hours every day,” says Tawk.
The Lebanese teenager is going to university next year, where he plans on studying physical education.
“I would be happy working in that, it wouldn’t be like work for me, it would be a happy life,” he says.
Tawk hopes to continue pursuing skiing professionally, and has his eyes on the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. He says the Lebanese Ski Federation does all it can to help him (he particularly thanks the federation’s Remond Seccur for his support) but admits there is little support for the sport from the government.
“The culture of skiing in Lebanon is great but we need to work on it a lot more. If we want to have good results at the Olympics or other competitions, we should work a lot. But it’s possible because we have good people and strong people and we have the conditions for that,” states Tawk.
“Maybe we don’t have the materials, the coaches – we have coaches but they’re not Lebanese – and it’s expensive for Lebanese people to secure good coaches for their kids because foreign coaches cost a lot. And also we need support from our government, there isn’t enough support for us.”
He is coached by Aleksandar Milenkovic, a Serbian former biathlete, cyclist and cross-country skier who competed in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
Does Tawk see a future for himself in the sport?
“Yes of course, as long as I have the time to train while working. In Lebanon we travel long distances, if you work in Beirut, it’s far from the snow and the mountains where I train. But I’ll do my best for this,” he assured.
Tawk credits scouting for his perseverance in such a tough sport.
“This is my 10th year in scouting and I learned a lot of things from it like how to control your life, how to take decisions, and be strong,” he explains.
In an ideal world, Tawk would be living and training in Europe, to advance to the level he hopes to compete at. But he says he lacks the funding to make such a big move.
For now, he is keeping his expectations in check regarding his participation in the Winter Olympics this month.
“In Korea there’s a high level, much higher than mine because they’ve been training for like 20 years while I’ve only done this for two. They have a lot of support, like every athlete in PyeongChang maybe they spend like half a million or one million dollars to train and travel. I’m a little bit far from this but I’m still too young,” he says.
“So maybe I hope for the next Olympics I’ll be in much better shape. But this one will be a good experience for me.
“Still I’m training a lot, I’m training like I’m going to win it, because I always think and train like that. After that, whatever comes, I’m satisfied because I know I trained my best.”
Are there any athletes he is keen to meet in PyeongChang?
“There are a lot of athletes like (French biathlete) Martin Fourcade, (Norwegian cross-country skier) Johannes Klaebo and (Italian cross-country skier) Federico Pellegrino. I would like to see how they perform live, maybe I’ll train with them on the same track, that would be a great feeling and a great honour for me,” he says.