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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