As the country’s first female Olympic swimmer, and the UAE’s flag-bearer, teenager Nada Al Bedwawi carries quite the responsibility on her shoulders when she steps into the Maracana stadium in Rio for the opening ceremony on Saturday.
Just a few days shy of her 19th birthday, Al Bedwawi is more excited than nervous about taking centre stage on her Olympics debut.
The NYU Abu Dhabi student took part in her first major meet at the World Aquatic Championships in Kazan, Russia last year but knows the Games are a whole other animal to tackle.
Thanks to a wildcard, Al Bedwawi will be competing in the 50m freestyle heats on August 12 and while she knows she’ll be rubbing shoulders with so many athletes from various parts of the world, there is one particular star she is keen on meeting.
“Firstly, I’m really excited to be visiting Rio, as a city. I’ve been looking up things to do in Rio and such. And I’ve been looking up the other athletes who are going,” Al Bedwawi told Sport360 before flying to Brazil.
“From all the countries, I’ve been looking them up their names and their timings, so I’m really excited to meet some of them.
“I really want to meet Katie Ledecky from the US team. She’s around my age and she’s a nine-time world champion, so it would be a great honour for me to meet her.”
Al Bedwawi is aware of how big of a statement she is making, emerging as a swimmer from the UAE, where few females venture into a sport like hers. She says being a trailblazer comes with pressure but she feels she is handling it well.
In Rio, she is focused on swimming a new personal best in the 50 free – a race that is not her signature event but one where she is keen to improve.
“Preparation has gone great. My timings have improved and I’m highly focused at the moment,” says Al Bedwawi, who is a backstroke specialist.
“I haven’t swum the 50m freestyle in official competition in about two years so my personal best is around 33 seconds. But it’s got better now. My target now – I don’t want to set any targets, I just want to do my best out there, but I’m hoping for a 28 or 29.”
I'm honestly really proud and honored to have been chosen as the UAE's flag bearer for Rio 2016.— Nada Al Bedwawi (@nadaalbedwawi) July 26, 2016
Al Bedwawi is thrilled to be making history, but she’s also keen on witnessing it, while she’s at the Games.
“I really want to witness world records. I was very happy last year that I witnessed the 50m butterfly world record (Sarah Sjostrom in Kazan World Championships) so I really want to witness even more world records this year,” she says.
Joining Al Bedwawi on the UAE swim squad at the Olympics is 20-year-old Yaaqoub Al Saadi, a backstroker from Al Ain who is also making his debut. Al Saadi will be contesting the 100m backstroke – courtesy of a wildcard – looking to improve on his PB and UAE national record of 58.41 seconds.
“As soon as I found out I was going, I got so pumped that I’m going to a competition as big as this, with world champions and huge names – people I can learn a lot from,” said Al Saadi. “I want this to be an enriching experience and I want to represent my country in a positive way and I want to swim a new personal best, and set a new UAE national record.”
Al Saadi shaved two seconds off his PB last year and he’s hoping the Olympics will give him a push to advance even further.
“I hope the Olympics will be a launching pad for me, I want to train harder and hopefully next time, I go there having swum a qualifying time, not via invitation,” he says.
There will be something very different about Sergiu Toma’s third appearance at the Olympic Games in Rio.
He is already an Olympic veteran, having competed at both Beijing and London for the country of his birth, Moldova. In Brazil, however, he’ll be representing the UAE.
In 2013 the UAE began the process of making Toma, among others, a naturalised Emirati citizen. He is part of a 13-strong UAE team in Brazil, which also includes two other Moldovan-born judokas, Victor Scvortov and Ivan Remarenco.
The 29-year-old was eliminated in the second round by Georgia’s David Kevkhishvili in China in 2008. He beat Czech opponent Jaromir Musil four years later but then exited in the third round at the hands of Japan’s Takahiro Nakai.
The man who won European silver and World Championship bronze in 2011 is aware Rio might be his final appearance on the grandest stage of all, and he is determined to make his mark in Brazil.
“In London I lost the chance to get a bronze medal so my aim in Rio is very much to get a medal,” said the man now ranked inside the world’s top 10. “I am 29 so I am in the twilight of my career, it could be my last Olympics so I want to achieve a medal before I retire.”
Unlike in his younger years, form would suggest Toma’s time is now. He is ranked ninth in the world in the -81kg weight category he competes in, and insists he is determined to repay the faith shown in him by the UAE Wrestling & Judo Federation.
“I am desperate to win a medal before that (retirement) and I want to give something back to the UAE,” admitted Toma, born in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. “I want to return the faith that the UAE have put in me. With all the support and care I have received from them I want to give something back, because my life has changed big time since I switched to fight for the UAE.”
In Rio, world No. 1 Avtandili Tchrikishvili is likely to provide the sternest test to Toma’s medal aspirations. The 25-year-old Georgian is the reigning European champion.
For someone who has collected 32 medals from World and European Championships, and currently holds six different world records, it remains a real head-scratcher that Katinka Hosszu has never stepped on an Olympic
The 27-year-old Hungarian swim star has competed in three previous Games – Athens, Beijing and London – but is yet to win an Olympic medal.
She left the pool in London following a heart-breaking fourth place finish in the 400m individual medley, and seriously considered quitting the sport.
It is now four years later and Hosszu heads to Rio as one of the top swimmers to watch and carrying the nickname ‘Iron Lady’, which she has earned thanks to her heavy-duty schedules and unquenchable thirst for competitive racing, scooping a stream of medals in the process.
Since London, she has won the annual FINA Swimming World Cup series four times, has captured four World Aquatics Championships (long course) gold medals, six more in short course Worlds, and 17 European titles (in both the 25m and 50m pools).
Last year at Worlds in Kazan, she broke her first long course world record, in the 200m IM, to go with the five short course world marks she already held.
It’s a good thing she never quit after London.
“In Hungary, the Olympics has huge tradition and they pretty much say that if you’re a swimmer and you don’t have an Olympic medal then maybe you should look for another job,” Hosszu tells Sport360° at the Hamdan Sports Complex in Dubai, where she spent some time in June training ahead of the Rio Olympics.
“It’s hard to live the professional athlete life [there] and that’s when Shane [Tusup, her coach and husband] and I started working together.
“He had this great idea that I still love swimming, I still love racing, so why don’t we just try to go to the World Cups.
“One thing after another, we really started working and we really enjoyed it so it was really working for me. The time after London, I thought it might be more beneficial for me to continue my education, get a Masters in psychology and start working on my career. I think that’s the hard part, when you have to decide which one will be better for you.
“I still loved swimming and I still wanted to swim, I just didn’t know if I can live off of swimming at the time.”
It’s funny how two years on from the London Olympics, Hosszu became the first swimmer to pass the $1,000,000 mark in career prize money, just from racing.
“I guess this is how these stories usually go. Looking back it’s pretty crazy,” she says with a laugh, on how drastically her fortunes have changed.
Elite swimmers typically make most of their money from endorsement deals, with the sport being far from lucrative in terms of prize money. But Hosszu is a firm believer in earning her keep through her craft, and she has managed to make the most out of the Swimming World Cup series, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past four years.
While making a living off of the sport she loves was a great accomplishment, it is the confidence Hosszu has gained which has been the real game-changer for her. She also views her career in a different light, keeping things in perspective and not hanging all her hopes on the Olympic Games.
“I think the hard part with the Olympics, is it’s one day out of four years, and you can win everything the past four years and you just go there and something happens and you’re just not on your best day that day and you lose,” she explains.
“On the other hand I don’t feel that it should determine if your career was worth it or not.
“Now, I feel more ready to go [to the Olympics] and more relaxed. The past four years have been so amazing and I’ve just gotten so much from the sport that now I don’t feel that kind of pressure because even if I don’t get a medal, I still really love swimming and I’m going to keep swimming so it’s not going to be a now-or-never swim meet for me.”
It also helps that she already has her eyes on Tokyo 2020 and is not considering Rio as her last Olympics outing.
Teaming up with Tusup after London proved a real turning point for Hosszu. They got married in 2013 and she gives him a lot of credit when it comes to her success.
As Hosszu glides back and forth at the Hamdan pool in Dubai, Tusup walks alongside, yelling coded messages only she can understand.
She sticks her head up at one end every once in a while to have a quick chat with him, before resuming her swimming. It all seems very laid back and light-hearted.
Asked to pinpoint the greatest thing Tusup has helped her with, Hosszu takes a moment to think before saying: “It’s hard to say because it’s pretty much everything. If I would have to choose I would probably say the mental aspect. He gave me the confidence that I needed. He sees me practice and he tells me that ‘there’s no way that anybody can beat you’.
“I feel like I never really heard that before and I really needed it. I guess there are people who generally have more confidence but that’s something I still have to work on.”
Is it challenging being married to your coach?
“Of course, I would lie if I say it’s not,” she answers. “On the other hand, I think we benefit a lot more from it. He really knows me so well that from my body language he knows what I’m thinking. We work well together and that brings us closer.
“Living all those experiences together, that we’ve worked for together, is something that no one else can understand – just the two of us.”
Tusup has Hosszu’s 200m IM world record – 2:06.12 – tattooed on his forearm, signifying a monumental achievement she spent years striving to reach.
While Hosszu had proven she was the queen of the short course pool, it wasn’t until Kazan, exactly 12 months ago, that she broke a world record in the 50m pool.
Asked how it felt to finally do that, Hosszu said: “It’s a question I don’t think I can answer. It was unbelievable really.
“I never thought I would start crying in the water when I broke my first long course world record and I did.
“It’s something I set out when I was a little kid and I had long, long years when I thought it would never happen.
“You just start to get in your mind that ‘well, that was your goal but you didn’t quite reach it’ and being 26, it’s usually not when swimmers break their first long course record so it was something that I’ve worked a lot of years for and it was amazing.
“It was probably better that I broke it when I was 26, I definitely appreciate it a lot more.”
In Rio, Hosszu is entered in five events, the 100 and 200 backstroke, the 200 butterfly and the 200 and the 400 IM, which is actually not a heavy schedule in her own standards.
While her fiercely competitive nature means she is going there to get medals, she hopes her legacy is greater than any single result.
“I want to inspire people to push themselves,” she insists. “I really don’t think it’s about the medals and about your achievements, it’s more about what you can do and what you learn from it as a person. I do know we are entertainers and a lot of times it’s about the results but at the end of the day, it’s who you are.”