INTERVIEW: Aisha Al Balushi - The Rio-bound UAE weightlifter

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Al Balushi wants to see more women take up the sport.

Aisha Al Balushi’s fate was sealed the moment Emirates Weightlifting Federation (EWF) president Sheikh Sultan bin Mejren called out her name during a press conference in Dubai last week.

Standing alongside her six national team-mates at the UAE National Olympic Committee building, she stepped forward and received the UAE flag from Sheikh Sultan. She knows her life will be different for the next two months.

After all, the 24-year-old will now carry the weight of the UAE on her shoulders when she competes at the Rio Olympic Games.

Understandably, the news had yet to sink in, minutes after that announcement.

“I’m really excited,” said Al Balushi. After pausing for a few seconds, she added: “No words can explain what I am feeling right now because it’s always been my dream to compete at the Olympic Games.”

It was the icing on the cake for the Dubai resident. Just last week, she and her team-mates received news that the UAE were awarded one quota by the International Weightlifting Federation in the women’s event.

She was picked by the EWF based on being the highest achiever in April’s Asian Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

“I was quite surprised that I was selected,” said Aisha, winner of 13 golds, six silvers and four bronzes in various international competitions. “Before, there was slight pressure on me and the girls to perform. But given it’s the Olympic Games, there is more pressure on me now.”

Al Balushi says anything is possible when she lines up in the 58kg division at the Riocentro Pavilion on August 8. She has targeted a top-10 finish in Brazil but revealed her dream was nearly over before it even became a reality.

“I was attempting to lift 94kg weight during one of the rounds at the Asian Championships in Tashkent and that was where I injured my neck,” she recalls.

“I went to a hospital in the UAE after returning from Uzbekistan and I was very sad because the doctors had said that I may not compete ever again.

“They said don’t lift any barbells for six months.”

Disappointed with what she heard, Al Balushi underwent therapy and that worked like magic for her recovery.

After three weeks of intense therapy treatment, the Emirati returned to full training last month.

From left: Coach Ridha Ayachi, Al Balushi, team-mate Hamda Helali and EWF's Mohammed Ezoul.

From left: Coach Ridha Ayachi, Al Balushi, team-mate Hamda Helali and EWF’s Mohammed Ezoul.

“I feel very grateful and you can say that I’m feeling lucky (that she’s recovered in time for the Games),” she said. “The Olympics are no small competition.”

Her preparations for the showpiece quadrennial event is already under way with coach Ridha Ayachi overseeing her training sessions at Salah Al Deen Sports Hall in Al Mamzar, Dubai.

Like any aspiring athlete, Al Balushi remembers watching the Olympic Games on television when she was young, often staying up late to watch any sport that was being shown. Never did she imagine she would be there weightlifting.

But that all changed in 2009. The 24-year-old, the youngest of 12 siblings, excelled in sports, particularly in volleyball and running but the moment she tried weightlifting – she knew that was the future.

“I tried it one day after playing volleyball and I just loved it,” she recalls.

“I can’t stop thinking of weightlifting. It’s very different to other sports because it’s all about you.”

She follows in the same footsteps of female weightlifter Khadija Mohammed, who represented the UAE at the Olympic Games in London four years ago.

“It’s great that someone has already gone there as it shows our sport is growing. Now it’s my turn. I’ve already made my country and family proud by reaching this far and now I want to achieve more positive results for the UAE,” she said.

Described as a “very good team leader” by Sheikh Sultan, Al Balushi is on a mission to lead by example and hopes her participation is just the start for attracting even more female Emiratis to the sport.

“I want to inspire more girls to do weightlifting. I am an example that anyone can do this if they are determined and want to follow their dreams,” she said.

“At Rio, I want to be remembered as an athlete, who has fought hard for seven years and achieved her dream. Anything is possible.”

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Happy Birthday: Gianfranco Zola, Pierre Villepreux, Stiliyan Petrov

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(L-R)) Pierre Villepreux, Gianfranco Zola, Stiliyan Petrov.

Greatness comes in a small package when it comes to the Italian football icon, who was born on this day 50 years ago. Despite standing at only 5ft 6 in, Zola’s ebullience and outstanding genius shone through during an incredible – and lengthy – playing career.

He shone as a free-roaming forward for clubs such as Napoli, Parma, Chelsea and his beloved Cagliari, his supreme talents not fully exemplified by his tally of just 35 international caps.

Zola came to prominence alongside Diego Maradona at Napoli, lifting the 1989/90 Serie A title. But ‘Magic Box’ left his biggest impression at Chelsea, for whom he was voted the club’s greatest ever player in 2003.

His incredible spell in London saw him score 80 goals in 309 appearances, the highlight coming with his winning goal in the 1997/98 Cup Winners’ Cup final.

1943: Pierre Villepreux, former France full-back who also coached Italy rugby union side from 1978-81 (73) .

1979: Stiliyan Petrov, ex-Bulgaria midfielder training once again with Aston Villa after cancer treatment (37).

1979: Amelie Mauresmo, French tennis star who won Wimbledon and the Australian Open in 2006 (37).

1989: Dejan Lovren, Croatia and Liverpool centre-back who has 31 international caps (27).

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On fire: Will Grigg.

Becoming a major story at Euro 2016 without even taking the pitch is a considerable achievement and Northern Ireland’s Will Grigg, 25 on June 3, can rest easy knowing his tournament will not be forgotten easily.

Grigg, Wigan’s top-scorer in promotion this past campaign, has shot to wider fame courtesy of a chant in his honour which has quickly become known across Europe thanks to his selection for the competition.

Ahead of their group stage clash, Germany defender Mads Hummels confirmed that even the opposition were fully aware of Grigg’s fame among fans at the competition.

Why wouldn’t he be famous, though? After all, it’s not often a football player is on fire heading into a major tournament!

Other birthdays:

1970: Teemu Selanne, Finnish retired NHl player who was a 10-time All-Star and Stanley Cup champion (46).
1980: Harbhajan Singh, Indian cricketer who has the second-most Test wickets by an o -spinner (36).
1987: Sebastian Vettel, German Formula One driver for Ferrari and four-time world champion with Red Bull (29).

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