A new chapter in UAE swimming history will be written when Alia Al Shamsi and Nada Al Bedwawi become the first ever Emirati females to represent the country at a World Aquatics Championships.
At the Arab Swimming Championships in Dubai last April, Al Shamsi, became the first Emirati female to fly the UAE flag in an official competition.
The 15-year-old has now stepped up to the global stage where she hopes to make a statement in Kazan by showing the rest of the world that girls like her are breaking new ground in the UAE.
Al Shamsi will make her World Championships debut in the 100m breaststroke while Al Bedwawi, 17, will compete in the 100m backstroke heats.
"It’s really nerve wracking but I’m going to do my best and I don’t really expect a result, just being able to be here and participate is my goal," Al Shamsi told Sport360.
"I am very proud and I take it as a responsibility to encourage other female swimmers to join and help break gender boundaries in the UAE."
Asked if there was any particular swimmer she was looking forward to meet, Al Shamsi named Farida Osman, an Egyptian former junior world champion who was a finalist at the Barcelona Worlds two years ago.
Meanwhile, Al Bedwawi, who turns 18 in two weeks, says she’s drawing lots of inspiration from rubbing shoulders with the big guns in Russia. She has only been swimming professionally for a little over two years.
"It’s great and challenging at the same time," she said of being at the Worlds for the first time. "Seeing myself right now in the World Championship in Kazan between Olympians and world class swimmers just makes me want to become the best I could be and improve myself and make the UAE proud."
Asked if she feels the Arab world is becoming more accepting of female swimmers, Al Bedwawi said: "Yes definitely, because besides me and Alia, there are girls from Qatar and Kuwait who started world class swimming as well.
Another Arab female who will enter the history books this week in Kazan is Bahrain’s Alzain Tareq, who at 10 years old, will be the youngest ever swimmer to compete at a World Aquatics Championships when she lines up for the 50m butterfly and 50m freestyle.
Alzain has already been turning many heads walking around the Athletes’ Village in Kazan, with many swim stars walking up to her asking her about her age and which events she’ll be contesting.
"I’m very happy to be here," said Alzain. "I’m a little bit nervous but it’s a great feeling being at the World Championships and meeting all these great athletes. I’m most excited to meet Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden."
Alzain got into swimming at the age of four thanks to her father Tareq Juma Salem. One of her coaches, Khalifa Ali, passed away six months ago and Salem says Alzain will be competing this week in his honour.
"She will be doing this for him," said Salem.
Alzain’s father says he is not worried about her getting overwhelmed by the occasion and is confident she will be up for the challenge.
"She has competed in many championships in Bahrain since she was seven years old so she has the experience," says Salem.
"We started going on the road when she was five or six years old. She trains twice a day and now she will be the youngest ever to compete at a World Championship.
"She is loving it so far to be honest. She’s been taking pictures with every single swimmer. She’s very excited to meet Chad le Clos. She had a great chat with (former Olympic champion of Zimbabwe) Kirsty Coventry, she met Missy Franklin, world champion Cate Campbell…
"Everyone is asking her what she is going to swim, asking her how old she is. One of the coaches who works with Campbell interviewed her the other day. I’m sure the World Championships will be an unforgettable experience for her."
Salem and Alzain’s coach have put some targets for her in Kazan where she will hope to clock 34 seconds or better in the 50 free and 41 seconds or better in the 50 fly.
"One of the targets is for her to not come last in the in the 50 free heat and hopefully she will not," Salem said.
"She probably can beat five girls already. If she does it, it would mean that not only is she the youngest swimmer here, but she also beat a couple of older swimmers."
The UAE and Bahrain aren’t the only GCC countries to field women in their swim squads for Kazan. Olympians Nada Al Arkaji of Qatar and Faye Sultan of Kuwait will also be in action alongside a host of Arab female swimmers from Yemen, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, Palestine and Sudan.
UAE SWIMMERS SCHEDULE
August 2 – Men’s 50m breaststroke – Mubarak Al Besher
August 3 – Men’s 100m Backstroke – Yaaqoub Al Saadi
Women’s 100m Backstroke – Nada Al Bedwawi
Women’s 100m Breaststroke – Alia Al Shamsi
August 4 – Men’s 50m Breaststroke – Mubarak Al Besher
August 8 – Men’s 50m Backstroke – Yaaqoub Al Saadi
August 7 – Women’s 50m Butterfly
August 8 – Women’s 50m Freestyle
Former world junior champion Farida Osman will be looking to draw on her fond memories from being a finalist at the Barcelona Worlds two years ago as she targets another successful campaign in Kazan this week.
The undisputed Arab swimmer to watch at these World Championships, Osman became the first ever finalist from Egypt when she placed seventh in the 50m butterfly in Barcelona in 2013.
Her Cal Bears team-mate at UC Berkeley, four-time Olympic champion Missy Franklin, called her “the most competitive person I have ever met in my entire life” while the team’s acclaimed head coach Teri McKeever dubbed her “the Missy Franklin of Egypt”.
Osman, 20, has been at Berkeley for two years now and together with University of South Carolina pair Ahmed Akram and Marwan El Kamash, are leading Egypt’s strongest ever world championship swim squad this week in Russia.
Training with a team like the Cal Bears has had a big impact on Osman’s evolution and she says she has become technically more efficient and mentally stronger.
She is swimming the 50m and 100m butterfly and freestyle events in Kazan and is hoping to make a big splash.
“My target is to get my best times in all my races. I want to be able to surprise myself,” Osman told Sport360. “I want to go for it and whatever happens, happens. I don’t want to over-think anything. I don’t want to talk about ranking now because I don’t know. My time is the most important thing for me right now.”
Osman has been inspiring swimmers across the Arab world ever since she became a world junior champion in Lima four years ago.
Her exploits in Barcelona saw her translate her success onto the senior stage and she’s now shooting for more.
“I have good memories from Barcelona, making the final in the 50 fly, that was a really good memory – the first Egyptian to final, I felt like the entire country was behind me just supporting me. So it was a really nice feeling. I’m trying to take this memory into this competition to try and experience the same feeling,” says Osman.
Akram, 19, has added to Egypt’s success in the pool recently by winning the country’s first Olympic gold medal in swimming, triumphing in the 800m freestyle at the Nanjing Youth Olympics 12 months ago, while El Kamash has caught the eye of many as he smashed several Egyptian national records at various meets in the United States, and swam faster than the likes of Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte in an event in Charlotte.
“There are three of us who are kind of putting Egypt on the map, globally,” said Osman of the efforts she, Akram and El Kamash have been putting in. “People are more aware of Egypt in swimming now.”
— Gamecock Swimming (@GamecockSwim) July 21, 2015
Akram says he’s confident heading into the action in Kazan and says his gold medal in Nanjing has earned him the respect of his fellow competitors.
“I'm so proud to be part of this team,” said Akram. “This is the strongest Egyptian swimming national team in the history.
“It was so important to win the Youth Olympics gold medal because I worked really so hard and was thinking about this medal a lot.
“And this medal gave me the confidence I need now for the next level. I made a name for myself and everyone respects me as a professional swimmer because of it.”
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