History will be made at the Hamdan Sports Complex today when Alia Al Shamsi takes to the pool for the Arab Swimming Championships, becoming the first-ever Emirati female swimmer to represent the country’s national team.
No female has ever competed under the UAE flag in any swimming competition and Al Shamsi, 15, is well aware she is breaking new ground, in a region where tradition and religion have prevented many like her from taking up the sport.
“I’m really happy to be the first Emirati to represent the UAE, it’s a huge honour for me,” Al Shamsi said. “It’s a big responsibility, and I hope I don’t disappoint.
“I think it’s a very nice thing, breaking new ground like that, and I believe that I’m doing something that is very important.
“I hope it encourages other girls to join me because I dream of having a full Emirati team of girls representing the country. We have a healthy men’s squad but on the women’s side, it’s just me. If we have a team, then we can really start competing against other countries.”
Al Shamsi has been swimming for the past six years but has only previously competed for Repton School in school meets. She got selected by the UAE national team and has been training with them for the past two months. Her brother Abdulla, who is a year younger than her, also trains with the national squad and she says her family are very supportive of her swimming.
“I really found myself in swimming,” she explains. “I tried horseback riding, and skiing, but I fell in love with swimming. My parents are really supportive of me, especially my dad, even though I am the only girl in the family. He really encourages me.”
Al Shamsi, who trains at Al Wasl Club, is specialised in the 50m and 100m breaststroke but will be making her national team debut today in the 50m backstroke at the HSC.
“I won’t put pressure on myself in terms of clocking a certain time, I just want to do my best,” she insists.
“It will be a big day for me, my name will go down in history as the first Emirati female swimmer to represent the country and I want to enjoy it. There are lots of very strong girls in the championship, and they are much older, more experienced and faster than me. I’m aware of that.
“But this is a start for me. I dream of qualifying to the Olympics, that’s a long-term goal of mine.”
Al Shamsi’s coach Mohamed El Zanaty is hoping more girls can follow in her footsteps and join team UAE. He’s unsure of the reaction locals will have towards Al Shamsi’s debut but feels it is a necessary step to move the sport forward here.
“She’s the first local swimmer in the history of UAE swimming. This is huge,” said El Zanaty.
“We are trying to open the door for other women to join us. We’ve been training her for two and a half months and we are trying to get support for her to continue, and for more to follow suit. We’re waiting to see the reaction from the public when she swims tomorrow but so far so good.”
The UAE is the latest in a series of several GCC countries who have started fielding female swimmers in recent years. Kuwait’s Faye Sultan caused a stir when she became the first female swimmer from her country to compete at an Olympic Games in London in 2012.
Qatar, who had never sent any females to the Olympics prior to London 2012 and were forced by the IOC to send women in order to remain eligible for the Games, had Nada Arkaji represent them in London in the 50m freestyle.
Dubai-based Algerian swimmer Hannah Taleb-Bendiab believes female swimming in the Arab world is enjoying a surge in both participation and strength of the athletes.
The Hamilton Aquatics swimmer said: “Compared to last year, there are a lot more girls competing in the Arab Championships this year.
“They’re also much better and faster as well. Even the Algerian team here is quite strong. Swimming is not a traditional sport for us in the Arab world but I’m sensing more girls are getting into it and thinking ‘why not?’”
Bendiab’s Hamilton team-mate Yasmine Alameddine was representing Lebanon for the first time yesterday and won a bronze medal in the 14-15 age group 200m butterfly.
Alameddine, who turns 15 in June, hopes to qualify for the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires.
“It’s nice to swim for your country. It’s a good experience,” she said of her debut for Lebanon. “The Arab girls in this competition are swimming really fast.”
For the past three decades, diving has emerged as one of the more popular sports in Canada and Roseline Filion has ridden the crest of that wave of talent coming out of that part of the world.
Following in the footsteps of her compatriot Sylvie Bernier, who won gold in the 1984 Games, Filion got on the Olympic podium in London 2012, claiming bronze in the 10m synchro with her partner Meaghan Benfeito. They also won silver together at Worlds in Barcelona in 2013 and gold at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last year.
This season, Filion and Benfeito celebrate their 10-year anniversary competing together – the longest partnership in the sport’s history.
Sport360° caught up with Filion in Dubai last week to know more about her quest for Olympic gold.
How are you feeling this early in the season?
I’m feeling great. I’ve been training for a long period of time before starting the international circuit. I was in Germany in February just to warm up a little bit to the crowd and starting strong with the World Series. My diving is improving.
How different is your training when it’s a World Championship year like this season, and with the Olympics coming up next year?
We’ve increased training a little bit because we know the Olympics are approaching and we’re in the final stage of preparation. The dives are in, it’s just fine-tuning, and competing, competing… the World Series are good for the opportunity of competing six times and get adjusted to jetlag and traveling and all that stuff. So we build endurance and it’s the key to make everything for the World Championships.
You can qualify for the Olympics through the World Championships, do you have a lot of competition for that, or is your spot more or less secure?
Oh, yes. To secure a spot for my country, individually we have to be top 12 and in synchro we have to be top three. So it’s very hard.
We have another champion at World Cup in February in Rio. The placing will be different, but we want to get this done first time around and focus on the entire Olympic season to fine-tune and be ready for the Games.
You’ve had great success in synchro, how did you end up specialising in that event?
2015 is a special year for synchro, for Meaghan Benfeito and I, because we are celebrating our 10th year in the partnership. It’s never been seen in the history of international diving – we’re the longest partnership ever.
It’s very special for us to compete this year, remembering all the memories we’ve built so far. We started at the world championships in 2005 in Montreal with a medal, so I hope we keep going with our success, we’re still improving and looking forward to the upcoming season.
How do you think your partnership survived such a long time? Did you guys ever fight and say you didn’t want to do it anymore?
We never doubted that we wanted to continue to do synchro together. We spend all day, every day almost together, so sometimes we fight, it’s normal, everybody does.
But at the end the day we’re such a great team, we understand each other, we don’t have to say a word and we’ll understand how the other one feels. So I think that’s how our partnership works.
We communicate very well, we know each other inside and out. We trust each other and trust our diving, so that’s what makes it so successful.
Do you remember where you first met Meaghan?
We met at least 15 years ago. We started diving at the same time. I was in a different club at that time, but I moved to the club where she was training. I remember going to kids’ birthday parties with her, we’ve been friends for over 15 years.
— Aaron Dziver (@Aaron_Dziver) March 19, 2015
Pretty much every diver in the world is competing with the Chinese, or seem like they’re in a league of their own sometimes. What’s it like for you trying to squeeze yourself onto that podium between them?
This is what we train for. We know they’re really good and really strong. But we’ve seen that they’re humans, they can miss, they can not do well and we’re trying to train extremely hard and train as perfectly as we can to improve and just to put pressure on them to see how they react, and see how good we’ve become.
It’s doable. They have not won all the events at the Olympics and the world championships, so it is possible and I think we’re getting there.
When you travel to the World Series spots, do you feel that these competitions are popularising diving in the areas you’re going to, or do you compete in empty arenas?
I think the World Series is doing a great job in raising the profile of the sport. We hear about diving more and more. I think we’re getting to a place where it’s a little bit like tennis, where there are a lot of people interested and coming… becoming more and more high performance, professional, and a little high-end thing to watch to diving.
FINA is doing an amazing job and just to host a World Series, it’s prestigious. So if we put out there that diving is prestigious, people will get into it, and it’s so fun to watch.
In Canada, diving is one of the mostwatched sports in the Olympics and I think it’s not only in Canada. So it’s getting there.
Do you get stopped on the street back home in Canada?
Sometimes I get stopped ‘oh are you that diver?’ I look really different with dry hair and dress, people know me with wet hair and a speedo on.
But I think we get that renown, diving in Canada has had years of success, Sylvie Bernier won a gold medal in 1984 and there’s been medals at every Olympics since then for Canada. So we have a tradition of success in diving and Canada is noticing it.
How did you choose this sport?
I was a gymnast before and I was watching the 1996 Olympics and I saw Annie Pelletier win the bronze medal on the 3m springboard and I told my parents I wanted to be just like her. So they put me into diving and 16 years later I won a bronze medal myself at the Olympics. It’s amazing. I love my sport.
What’s the most stressful thing for you in a meet?
I have one chance to succeed. I’ve trained many years for that day, that hour, and that one dive that I need to do. That’s what is stressful for me. That’s what makes sport in general exciting to watch because you have one chance. So that’s what we learn to deal with, and handle the pressure.
Any specific dive you find particularly difficult?
For me would be my third dive that I’m competing individually, I do it in synchro as well but I feel like in synchro Meaghan is able to lift me up and it’s not as stressful – it’s a front 3 1/2 , I’ve been having troubles for years with that dive but it’s coming along and it will be ready on time.
Over 900 swimmers have descended upon the Hamdan Sports Complex to compete at the Dubai International Aquatic Championships (DIAC), which kicks off today at the impressive Dh1.1billion facility.
Competitors from 24 countries and 65 different clubs will take to the pool to race across nine age-group categories, starting from 10-year-olds, all the way up to 60-plus.
The event also serves as an Arab Swimming Championship and as a qualifying meet for this summer’s World Aquatic Championships in Kazan.
Three Emirati swimmers – Mubarak Salem, Mohammed Al Ghaferi and Yaaqoub Al Saadi – will be seeking B-cut qualifying times for Kazan. B-cut swimmers are used to fill the spaces left beyond those who have reached the A-cut standard.
“I think B-cut times are quite feasible from our boys,” UAE national team assistant coach Mohamed El Zanaty told Sport360°.
“Mubarak is just 0.05 seconds off the B-cut in the 50m breaststroke. His time is 28.60 seconds while the B-cut is 28.55 seconds.
“As for Ghaferi and Yaaqoub, they’ve both been able to swim good times in short course in the 50m back, they now just need to do it in the long course pool.”
— HamdanSportsComplex (@HamdanSC) March 31, 2015
The DIAC will also include an open water race (April 7) at the Mina Al Seyahi beach, as well as a water polo event (April 7-11) at the HSC.
The water polo competition will feature five local clubs, Ahly and Heliopolis sides from Egypt, FTC Club from Hungary and the Qatar national team.
Meanwhile, Dubai-based European champion Velimir Stjepanovic has flown to the Netherlands where he will be hoping to achieve Olympic A-cut qualifying times at the Eindhoven Swim Cup.
The Cup starts tomorrow and concludes on April 5 and it will give Stjepanovic an opportunity to get his Olympic qualification out of the way early so that he can focus on training for Worlds and Rio 2016.
The Serb, who was sixth in the 200m butterfly at the previous Olympics in London, did some altitude training in Mexico a couple of months ago before flying to Brazil where he was invited to visit the pool where he will be competing in in 2016.
“We weren’t able to see the pool which is unfortunate but we went and experienced the climate and all the other things that are going to be going on there so that was important,” he said.
“Mexico camp was really hard and I think it really benefitted all of us.”