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.”