Tucked away at the Collegiate American School in the middle of Jumeirah is a gym where a host of young gymnasts, including Emirati sisters Amina and Shaikha Al Tayer, train six times a week in rhythmic gymnastics.
Amina, 13, and Shaikha, 10, are the first Emiratis to take up the sport competitively and have taken part in events in Italy, Hungary and most recently Canada, where the younger sister took four gold medals, including one in all-round, at the Planet Rhythmics Gymnastics Club meet in Vancouver.
They are both B-level competitors – just one level below Olympic level and have big plans in a sport they know they are pioneering in the UAE.
Sport360° sat down with the Tayer sisters at DuGym to know more about their life as rhythmic gymnasts.
What made you girls want to take up rhythmic gymnastics? What do you like about the sport?
Amina: It’s fun because I can meet new people and experience new things. At the same time, though, I have to keep my feelings to myself, especially when I’m nervous. I don’t want to show the other girls my nerves, so instead I keep a smile on my face. Once you’re on the carpet, it’s fun.
I started in artistic gymnastics but it wasn’t really my style. My sister did rhythmic gymnastics before me, and I saw her do one lesson and I really liked it so I joined when I was eight. It’s been six years for me now.
Shaikha: I feel like once you start and get into it, you can’t really stop. I started out with one of my friends from school, her name is also Shaikha and since the beginning I’ve loved and enjoyed it.
What are your hopes and dreams for yourselves in the sport?
A: I want to make sure it stays in my life, even when I’m 40, I still want to be like a coach or judge.
S: I hope that eventually I become an A-level gymnast at least, perhaps one of the best. Every gymnast wants to eventually go to the Olympics, or the World Championships so I’d love to do that.
There are almost no Emiratis who compete in gymnastics. How does it feel to do something no one else is doing at the moment?
A: It’s cool because I’m one of the first, but also I don’t want to seem like I’m showing off, so I like to stay humble but it’s really nice.
Would you like to see more Emiratis take up your sport?
A: Yes, absolutely. Sometimes I tell my friends at school to join, but now they’re kind of older, like 15, so it’s hard to join now. But the younger ones, I talk to them about it and see if they can join.
Did you ever imagine you’d be at this level, travelling all around the world competing in events?
S: I never imagined… even three years ago I never thought I could be at this level.
When did you realise you can actually be this competitive in the sport?
S: The first competition we weren’t able to go, it was in London. But the second one, I was begging my mum to let us go. That’s when I realised that I really wanted to continue. Our first competition was two years ago in Budapest and we went to the same competition again last December.
Do your parents support your decision to do gymnastics?
A: Yes, my parents come and watch us. And if my dad can’t make it to any of the competitions, we’ll have videos to show him. They’re very proud of us.
Do you feel you’re making progress each time you travel and compete?
S: I feel I’m improving but when I’m there I do get quite nervous. Also training is a really nice experience because you get to see the girls who are at a higher level than you and then you get to compare yourself to them and try to improve. That allows us to come back here and try the new elements in training.
You train six times a week, how do you manage training while keeping up with your school work?
A: I have to make sure I have good time management. Before, I would spend hours on my computer or phone. Now there’s like 30 minutes of that a day. And then I have to do my school work, then back to the gym… but I guess I’m used to it now. But I have to control it.
Obviously Amina, you’re older and your work load at school is increasing. Do you see yourself continuing to compete in the future?
A: Maybe two years from now, I don’t know if I’ll still be traveling to other places, but I’ll still train for like three times a week or even just be an assistant coach or something. I just want to make sure that the sport is still in my life.
What do you think is your sister’s strength as a gymnast?
A: Her strength in rhythmic gymnastics I think is that she’s very, very good – knock on wood – with pirouettes. Her ring is like her signature. There’s a lot of things she’s good at but when I see her pirouettes, I feel like ‘I wish I could do that’. I love to see her do them.
S: In dancing steps, she’s really graceful and picks up on them really fast. For me I’m always awkward about it. It takes me a while to catch on.
Is it cooler that you get to do this with your sister?
S: Yes, but sometimes she can be annoying!
A: Yes, when we’re at a hotel room and it’s me, a friend, another gymnast and Shaikha, it’s always nice because I still have family close by. Sometimes just seeing my sister being there next to me, I have someone I really care about with me – she’s like another best friend.
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I saw you girls stretching, doing those splits between the benches for quite a long time. It looked brutal. Is it as tough as it looks or do you enjoy doing that?
A: No, I don’t like it. But one year ago, my split was not good, stretching was getting harder and I hated it more. But then I could see so much more improvement so at the same time I love it.
S: I hate it. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays we stay in that split position for seven continuous minutes. On Sundays, Mondays and Saturdays we do it for like five minutes.
So what are you thinking of when you’re doing those stretches?
S: You don’t think about the pain. You think about positive results that come from stretching instead. Our coach always tells us, ‘make pain a person and let her be your friend’.
A: Pain is always on my mind because it’s there, you can’t really get rid of it. But obviously this is for improvement, and after when I come off and I’m just sitting, I feel like I could sleep in that position, it’s that easy.
Do you have any gymnasts who inspire you?
A: I really like the gymnast called Margarita Mamun. She’s like a role model for me. She’s from Russia and is a world champion.
S: I like Aleksandra Soldatova. She’s also from Russia. There’s a third one on the Russian team – Yana Kudryavtseva so me, Amina, and our friend feel like we’re similar to those three, like Amina is Margarita, I’m Aleksandra and she’s Kudryavtseva.
Do you have a favourite gymnastics routine to watch online or on TV?
A: I can’t stop watching Yana’s ribbon. She’s very graceful, I love her feet. I watch that non-stop.
S: Recently we watched the livestream of the European Championships and I was looking up previous editions of the competition and I saw this girl, her name is Yevgeniya Kanayeva, she won the Olympics twice. It was one where she got a perfect score, so there were zero mistakes.
So what’s the toughest thing about doing this?
A: To manage your time I think. If I didn’t have school in my life, it would be way easier. But I guess you have to do school.
S: I would definitely prefer if we did six hours of gymnastics and four hours school. So switch it around. But my mum always tells us ‘if gymnastics doesn’t work out, you always have to have something to fall back on’. But the Russian gymnasts they’re all so good and they don’t have to go to school every day. They go for like two hours.
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