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.
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