When Her Highness Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum carried the UAE flag around the Beijing National Stadium at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, history was being made as she became the first Emirati woman to compete at the quadrennial Games.
That moment came following an array of unprecedented achievements she had enjoyed in both Karate and Taekwondo.
And five years later, it’s no surprise that Sheikha Maitha has found new ground to break for women in the Emirates by bringing to the Middle East the first-ever ladies-only polo tournament.
No stranger to excelling in sport, Sheikha Maitha’s real aspirations lie in carving a place for women in the sporting arena in a way that transcends gender and pays tribute to their skills and abilities.
“When we look at sport we hope to see the athletes as athletes not gender, and to see the talent and hopefully respect it as a sport, rather than say it’s women and men,” Sheikha Maitha said on the sidelines of the Ralph Lauren International Ladies Polo Tournament at the Desert Palm.
“They’re all athletes, they can all bring something to the table.”
Having been forced to step away from martial arts due to injury, Sheikha Maitha switched her focus to polo and went from never having swung a mallet, to playing high goal polo within a few months.
She always had a strong connection with horses, instilled by her father His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, who is an endurance racing world champion and a prolific racehorse owner.
Watching her face the likes of Sunny Hale, the world’s best female polo player, at the Desert Palm this week, one would think Sheikha Maitha had been doing this for years. But it could also be the fire driving her to perform at her best in her premiere allwomen home event.
“This is the first ladies-only polo event here, so we are breaking new ground in the Middle East,” she says. “But women’s polo has been around in Europe, America and South America, and they have been able to reach the top and what we want is to show women’s polo at its best.
“So the idea was to bring the best to compete here and we have some very good athletes that we’re really proud to have represent the different continents. Ralph Lauren sponsored the tournament and they wanted to promote it so we decided to coordinate with Dubai Cares and attach it to a charity.
“We’re hoping to include other charities in the coming future, in the next women’s polo tournament. What we’re hoping to do is establish a good foundation to build upon, so the next one will be stronger and bigger.”
As a figure who has inspired countless women to venture into sport, Sheikha Maitha says she’s had her fair share of inspiration from one very special man, her father.
“From a very young age, whatever he did, his hobbies became our hobbies,” she explains. “And he was never limited with us, I never felt like there was anything I couldn’t do because I was a girl. But that was specifically how my father raised us.
“My father is a huge influence. He’s someone who likes to break records, break new ground and take huge risks. What he’s done in the equestrian world here, it speaks for itself. So definitely my father is my inspiration and he will always be.
“Just trying to do the same, or even compete with him is impossible,” she adds with a laugh. “Even though all kids want to be better than their parents, in this case it’s really hard, they’ve made it really difficult.
"I think the biggest thing with my father is that he practices what he preaches and he’s always instilled in us to lead by example. To do something, do it well, give it 100 per cent and I try to do that.”
When it comes to polo, Sheikha Maitha attributes her progress in the sport to her team, which resides at Ali Al Bawardi’s Desert Palm Polo Club. The patron is the one who initially suggested she buy a polo pony and shortly after, Sheikha Maitha was playing at the Queen’s Cup and Gold Cup with his team.
“We walked into a facility that already had a very high level sports team. Ali Al Bawardi’s team is one of the best in the world and they had multiple wins in the Queens, in the Gold… So they themselves have broken records,” Sheikha Maitha explains.
“They have one of the best players in the world playing on their team and to walk into that facility we were hoping to form a sister team. Something that was part of it but would rival it too, like a sibling rivalry thing.
“They’ve already paved the way and for us to see what our potential is, how far we can go. And at the end of the day that’s what we want to do, to realise our potential.”
It seems she is on the right track to doing just that. Sunny Hale, who has achieved the highest rating by a woman in the history of the sport, says she’s been impressed by Sheikha Maitha’s level and boldness on the polo field.
“She’s fantastic,” says Hale. “She has really good game sense and she looks like she’s a really good rider. She’s very good and aggressive at jumping in and making plays and that’s one of the hardest things as a new player. I’m just learning about her career in martial arts and that is the extra element.”
Sheikha Maitha agrees that her years in combat sports has aided in her polo career: “I’m sure it has helped. But I must say that is a huge compliment coming from one of the best woman polo players in the world. She’s a serious athlete. She is among the best, not just in women’s polo – she rivals the men.
“My background initially was horses and then I went into martial arts. But I came back to horses and polo was something… we know the adrenaline, it’s really close to racing. I just enjoy the game, coming from an individual sport and now participating in team sport, it’s a different kettle of fish but I’m enjoying it.”
When asked whether she would ever go back to Taekwondo or Karate, she said: “If I can go back stronger than I was then I will.”
And on her proudest accomplishments so far, she added: “Any opening ceremony with me holding the flag. For me it was the most proud I was, and it made everything worthwhile, all the blood, sweat and tears. Being able to hold that flag and lead the team in, I think that was the most proud I’ve been.”
A SPORTING LIFE…
2004 Became the first woman from the UAE to win an international gold medal when she placed first in the Karate Over-65kg category at the 10th Pan Arab Games in Algeria.
2006 Won the silver medal in the Women’s Over- 60kg Karate event in the Asian Games
2007 Won the Arab Athlete of the Year Award. Won the gold again at the 11th Pan Arab Games in Cairo.
2008 Became the first woman to represent the UAE at the Olympic Games competing in the 67kg Taekwondo event. Also became the first female flag-bearer at the Olympics from the Gulf region and won the Best Female Sportsperson at the Arab Sports Awards.
2012 Begins polo career
Champion Trainer Ernst Oertel provided the first three winners on the card at Abu Dhabi yesterday evening, all owned by his main patron Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Champion Jockey Tadhg O’Shea will ride plenty of winners this season but few as easy as debutante Nemrah, who led virtually all the way in the opening 1,600m maiden.
O’Shea said: “We almost expected that – she has been working very well at home, but there is always that question mark before they produce it on the track – and she certainly has.”
And 30 minutes later, O’Shea was back in the winner’s enclosure after the impressive victory of Molahen Alham in a 1,600m conditions event.
Conceding weight to seven rivals, O’Shea always looked happy on the eventual winner and, once they scooted clear 400m out, the result was never in doubt.
The jockey said: “This a nice horse, there is little doubt about that. Most things went wrong during the race, including the saddle slipping up his neck early on but luckily he is a big horse and we survived.
“All things considered, it was a good win and hopefully he can build on this.”
O’Shea appeared set to complete a rapid-fire treble for owner and trainer on Sheikh Down in the following 1,600m handicap, only to be denied in the dying strides by stable companion Shahryar, a first winner of the season for jockey Adrian Nicholls.
Nicholls said: “You always know you have a chance riding for this stable and it is a great result for the yard.”
Team Buenos Aires retained their Coutts Polo at the Palace title on the lawns of the Emirates Palace on Saturday, defeating Team Abu Dhabi 6-4 in the final.
The team from Argentina just held on for the win as the home side’s comeback was too late in a game reduced to three chukkas. The best player of the tournament, 23-year-old Santiago Gomez Romero, admitted he was glad to hang on for the win.
He said: “I’m really happy. At the end they were coming back a little bit, and we were lucky to hang on. The match finished just in time.
“It’s my first time here. The show was amazing, the fans were really good. The field was incredible – it had a really good footing for the horses.”
The reduced octagonal shaped pitch is 210 yards long and is 88 yards wide, while the corners have been cropped to keep the ball in play longer. Instead of the normal four players per team, there are just three in the Polo at the Palace version which allows them to be more creative.
Abu Dhabi took the early lead through a penalty by Facundo Castagnola, before Buenos Aires turned it around with two goals early in the second chukka, which included a strike from the left side board by 41-year-old Guillermo Cuitino.
Another penalty by Castagnola drew Abu Dhabi level, before Buenos Aires went on a 4-0 run with goals from Guillermo, Santiago and a two-pointer from captain Mohammed Al Habtoor.
Two goals in the third chukka from Matias Machado brought the home team back into the game, but the clock ran out and Buenos Aires won. Meanwhile, Team Milan beat Team London 9-8 – with a golden goal in extra time – in the Plate final earlier in the day.
Rory Heron, the managing director of tournament promoters City Events, said: “I think you have to realise what polo is. It’s great fun to watch but what we’re trying to do is offer people a fun day out with what is actually a pretty extreme sport.
“A two-ton animal going at 30mph and the player trying to hit a ball with a small stick. Those guys are really talented.
“We’re not asking anyone to become polo aficionados, we just want them to bring their friends and family and have a good time,” added Heron.