Betlhem Desalegn Belayneh is hoping a hamstring injury she aggravated last month will not dash her hopes of competing in a second Olympic Games.
The 24-year-old four-time Asian Championships gold medallist pulled her hamstring after winning a race in Heusden, Belgium and is a doubt for the 1,500m in Rio this month.
“I was injured, same place as last year but I’m fighting back to do better,” Belayneh told Sport360 ahead of the Games. “I am not 100 per cent but I am doing good.”
Belayneh was 12th in her heat in the 1,500m at London 2012, clocking 4:14.07. Since then, she has won four Asian gold medals and has improved her PB to 4:03.70.
“Since London, a lot of things have changed and I have gained more experience,” she says.
“I ran a PB in Bejing in May and I was so happy. I felt that I could have done even better after that, but most of my races since then have been more tactical so I was running more like 4:06, 4:05. But surely I feel that I belong with the best in the world when I’m running times like that.
“I am trying to manage my injury, and make sure I go to Rio feeling confident and ready.”
Belayneh has been training alongside a group of elite athletes, including Genzebe Dibaba, under coach Jama Aden, who was arrested in Barcelona with EPO allegedly found in his hotel room. Has that disrupted her training ahead of the Games?
“I still train with Jama Aden. He got arrested but only for one day, so nothing has changed here,” she says.
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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.