When a 15- year-old Nada Al Bedwawi decided to take a serious shot at competitive swimming, she had no idea that three years later, she would be making history for the UAE.
Last year, Al Bedwawi – along with Alia Al Shamsi – became the first-ever female swimmers to represent the UAE at a World Championship when they took to the pool in Kazan, Russia.
This summer, Al Bedwawi will become the country’s first Olympic female swimmer when she lines up for the 50m freestyle in Rio de Janeiro.
It came as a surprise when the 18-year-old was told she would be getting a wildcard entry for the Olympics and Al Bedwawi admits she was initially anxious about it. Countries that do not have swimmers who have clocked qualifying times for the Games are often given wildcards, provided that whoever receives the Olympic invite had participated in the previous World Championship.
“I found out recently, about three weeks ago that I’ll be going to Rio. I was originally planning on going to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, I was preparing myself for that,” Al Bedwawi told Sport360.
“I never thought that I’d be given the opportunity to go to Rio 2016. So I was nervous about that but then I thought that it would be a great milestone to overcome in order to prepare myself for the 2020 Olympics.”
The NYU Abu Dhabi student, who turns 19 in August, is a rare occurrence not just in the UAE but in the Gulf region.
With cultural barriers holding back girls from competing in a sport like swimming, female swimmers are hard to come by in the Gulf but a few women have managed to breakthrough in recent years.
In London 2012, Faye Sultan became Kuwait’s first-ever female Olympic swimmer, while Nada Arkaji became the first woman to represent Qatar at the Games when she competed in the 50m freestyle.
Al Bedwawi is following in their footsteps and is proud to be flying the flag for the UAE.
“Of course being one of the pioneers in any field, it puts pressure on that person,” said the Emirati teenager.
“But I believe I’m handling it well with the help of my coaches, my mum, my friends and my coaches.”
She explains that she has not encountered criticism from any conservatives since she competed at Worlds but is aware of the need to continue to push for female participation in sport here.
“From social media for example, all the reaction was positive, I’m not aware of any negative reaction that happened, but if there was, then those kind of people they need to be… we need to raise awareness about how important it is to have women entering the sports field in the UAE,” said Al Bedwawi.
When a young swimmer is asked who they look up to, names like Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin often come up. But when Al Bedwawi is quizzed about who inspires her the most, she names Egyptian butterfly sprinter Farida Osman and says she’s the athlete she is most looking forward to meeting at the Olympics.
“She’s one of the reasons why I like butterfly because I’ve seen her races in Kazan live and I’m really excited to see her. There are other great female swimmers as well from other countries but I really relate to her on the level that we are both Arabs and both of us have encountered obstacles when it comes to our culture and stuff,” said Al Bedwawi.
She likes the butterfly stroke but her coach, Mohamed Zanaty, advised her to specialise in backstroke, because she was technically better at it.
Al Bedwawi initially took up swimming as a hobby but when she met Zanaty – one of the UAE national team coaches – around four years ago, he helped pave the way for her to compete in international meets.
“I wasn’t that good when I started but I would just put myself out there to gain experience. I think that’s important. Even if you know that you’re not going to win but you’re putting yourself out there, you gain more experience and it helps you a lot in the next competitions,” she says.
In Kazan last year, she clocked 1:35.83 to place last amongst 66 swimmers in the 100m backstroke heats. The World Championships proved a valuable learning experience for her.
“I learned that the UAE as a country still has a long way to go but it doesn’t mean that you should give up now,” said Al Bedwawi.
“People from other countries, they aren’t doing this for the first time. They have come such a long way, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to them. For us, we’re doing really well and paving the way for future swimmers.”
Al Bedwawi is wrapping up her first year at NYU Abu Dhabi, where she trains by herself under the guidance of her coaches Aboud and Zanaty, She is pursuing a science degree in biology and admits striking a balance between swimming and her studies has not been easy.
“I remember in my high school years, if I thought they were hard, then university is 100 times harder. So it was very hard for me, at times I felt I wouldn’t be able to balance between swimming and my studies but it got better over time. The first semester was tough but the second semester and now in the summer course, everything is chilled and I’m able to balance everything out,” she explains.
Sport360 will be profiling one UAE-based Olympian each week as part of our build-up to Rio 2016.
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Olympic champions, Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei, will not defend their Women’s Doubles gold medal in Rio as their entry has been withdrawn by China’s National Olympic Committee (NOC).
Tian and Zhao’s place in the competition has been taken by their compatriots, Luo Ying and Luo Yu, who were ranked No.7 on 5 May 2016 at the end of the qualification period.
Zhao however will defend her Mixed Doubles gold medal with Zhang Nan. China’s challenge in Women’s Doubles will be led by Tang Yuanting and Yu Yang who qualified third.
The withdrawal means Zhao’s shot at becoming the first player to achieve a badminton Olympic ‘double double’ – a two-gold haul in successive Olympics – has evaporated. The 29-year-old celebrated a double at the London Games partnering Tian Qing in Women’s Doubles and Zhang Nan in Mixed Doubles.
Tian/Zhao’s withdrawal had an unfortunate consequence – Women’s Singles No.77 Akvile Stapusaityte of Lithuania lost her conditional reallocated position and will miss out on qualifying for Rio. (Stapusaityte was one of three players awarded conditional positions as a result of players qualifying in two categories).
Monday 18 July, 2016, was the deadline for the final list of confirmed athletes. Apart from Tian/Zhao, there were no other withdrawals and all names in the second phase of qualification have been confirmed.
This also means that China have kept faith in their top two Women’s Singles players, London 2012 gold medallist, Li Xuerui, and London 2012 silver medallist, Wang Yihan. Their compatriot, Wang Shixian, who missed the London 2012 Olympics, will not make it to Rio this time too despite being ranked 6 on the qualification date.
The badminton Draw Ceremony will be held next Tuesday, 26 July, from 11 am to 1 pm (Rio time) at the badminton Olympic venue, Riocentro – Pavilion 4 (Barra Zone). Seedings will be based on the World Rankings of Thursday 21 July, 2016. Fans worldwide will be able to follow the draw via live streaming on the BWF online channel (www.BadmintonWorld.tv).
The Men’s Singles competition will see 41 competitors take part, while Women’s Singles has 40 competitors. All three doubles categories have 16 pairs each. The Olympic Games badminton competition will be held 11 to 20 August, 2016.
From team spirit to individual glory, the Olympics has provided a platform for some incredible stories over the years. There have been plucky losers and record breakers – all aiming to be ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ as the Olympic motto famously states.
We are asking you to VOTE for your favourite moment of all time from our long list, which will be whittled down to a shortlist after a few days of voting.
Here, we look at two of the earliest memorable moments from the games which feature at the top of our list.
JIM THORPE – 1912
Never has there been an athlete quite as versatile as Jim Thorpe. Many consider him to be the best all-around athlete all-time.
The Native American won gold medals in the pentathlon as well as the decathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics.
In January 1913, he was stripped of his titles by the Amateur Athletic Union having played professional baseball prior to the Games, thereby violating the strict amateurism rules at the time.
Thorpe soon signed for the New York Giants and went on to play years of professional baseball, football, and basketball!
PAAVO NURMI – 1924
Some regard Paavo Nurmi as the greatest Olympian of all-time.
At the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris he incredibly ran seven times in six days and ended up with five gold medals.
The most trying part of that feat was when he ran the 1500 and 5000 metres finals within the span of a couple of hours and secured gold in both events.