Zahra Lari is pretty much the face of women’s figure-skating in the UAE at the moment. By no means a traditional sport in the country, she was the only female from the region to compete at the recent European Criterium Cup in Budapest, Hungary, where she took first place in the Interpretative C category in the 24th Sportland Trophy.
Indeed, she turned heads last year by being the first female figure-skater to enter an international competition wearing a hijab.
The 18-year-old is currently being coached at Zayed Sports City (ZSC) by Romanian Andreea Tuliga, who is also overseeing the development of other girls as young as four. Lari didn’t take up the sport until she was 12, but she is determined to make up for lost time.
The teenager will be competing at the Desert Open at ZSC ice-rink this weekend, which will see seven figureskating clubs – including ones from Dubai, Al Ain, Cyprus and Qatar – going for gold. It runs 12.30–17:00 on Friday and 10:00–17:00 on Saturday.
What influenced you to take up figureskating?
It was the 2005 movie Ice Princess – I saw it maybe six years ago. As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to be a figure-skater. My dad actually brought me to the ice-rink and I started taking lessons with Noemi Bedo [Head coach at Zayed Sports City].
Initially, I was only coming on Thursdays for one hour, because it was ladies day. But Noemi stressed that I needed to come more often. She said she noticed that I had a natural ability for figure-skating, so she encouraged me to make a bigger commitment and now I’m getting coached twice a day!
How much time do you spend training per week and does this affect your studies?
It depends really – some days are longer than others. But typically, it would be maybe four hours a day, six days a week, which is about 24 hours a week. When I have a competition season, I can’t go to university because I need to practice, so I take the semester off.
Like now, this summer, I come to the ice-rink in the morning and go back around 12 or 1pm. Then around 2.30pm I go to university and stay there until 5.30pm. I’m studying Environmental health and safety.
You were rewarded for your efforts in Budapest recently?
Yeah, there was a competition. It was mostly European girls and I was the only one from the Middle East. The other skaters were really good – most of them started when they were very young. They’ve been skating for a long time.
But I think I did well. I got first place in one of the categories – in interpretative – and I got 13th after the short and the long programmes.
What does “interpretative” mean?
It’s how you interpret the music. It’s how you show your emotions against the music. It’s almost like acting. I skated to Americano when I won the medal.
You’re hoping to skate to an Irish dance tune next?
Yes, next year I will be skating to Lord of the Dance. I will skate to it in a lot of competitions. So in the short programme you have to do three jumps, three spins and then a stepsequence and, then in the long programme, you have to do eight or nine jumps, three spins and a step sequence, so I’m using it for the short programme.
What’s next for you? What level of skating do you think you can reach?
Next year I’ll be doing more international competitions, but I’ll also be doing smaller competitions to gain experience. But as for my future goals, it is to go to the World Championships and the Winter Olympics [in Pyeongchang, South Korea, 2018]. ...not Sochi, 2014? No. We were trying, but it didn’t work out. [Zahra is the process of becoming a member of the International Skating Union (ISU). To compete in the Olympics or other major events, one must be a member of this. Her application is pending approval]
You became a pioneer when you became the first to wear a hijab in skating competition. Did this make you proud?
I want to encourage Muslim girls, because even though you are covered, you can still do what you love. You don’t have to just sit at home and do nothing.
Who are your favourite skaters?
Evan Lysacek [America’s 2010 men’s Olympic champion and 2009 World champion]. He won gold in the last Olympics and he came to our ice-rink and I got to skate with him and he also signed my skates.
I also like Sasha Cohen [America’s 2006 women’s Olympic silver medallist and threetime World Championship medallist] but she doesn’t really skate anymore – she just does shows really.
What’s your favourite move or spin?
I like doing the layback spin. I can also do a double axel and a triple salco. It’s the first time that I’m doing a triple salco in my routine. I’ve had a lot of falls and scored a lot of bruises, but I always say if you fall, you learn – get up and go again.