( Cover Fea­ture)

THE OLYMPIC FEVER MAY HAVE DIED DOWN THESE DAYS, BUT NOT FOR EMI­RATI F FIG­URE SKATER ZAHRA LARI WHO HAS HER SI GHTS SET ON THE 2018 WIN­TER OLYMPICS

WKND - - Contents - BY ASH­WANI KU­MAR

Meet the Emi­rati fig­ure skater who’s eye­ing the 2018 Win­ter Olympics

You can tell that Zahra Lari feels com­pletely at home while glid­ing on ice. The 21- year- old Emi­rati fig­ure skater has been turn­ing quite a few heads re­cently, not only be­cause of her g grace­ful moves and the fact that she keeps her hi­jab on with élan — it’s be­cause she’s at­temptin ng to do: what no other wo­man in the UAE has done be­fore — make a mark in fig­ure skat­ing at the up­com­ing 2017 Asian Games and even th he 2018 Olympics.

In the past, Zahra has taken part in com­petiti ions in Italy, Hol­land, Hun­gary, Korea, Ice­land a and Slo­vakia among others, and won twice in H Hun­gary and once in Ice­land.

“I en­joy skat­ing ev­ery­where,” the tal­ented young­ster ad­mits. “Over­seas, it’s not just my coun­try sup­port­ing me but ev­ery­one else as well. Many peo­ple come and tell me to keep go­ing strong. It’s nice to know that so many p peo­ple sup­port me. Even though there are many neg­a­tive peo­ple out there who crit­i­cise others and say bad things, I just ig­nore them as there will al­ways be some­one say­ing such th hings about you.”

“In some com­pe­ti­tions I do well and in some I do badly. I just try to add points and gain ex­pe­ri­ence. For this year, I am look­ing to im­prove on my spins.”

Zahra was only 12- years- old when she saw th he fig­ure skat­ing movie Ice Princess, and that im mme­di­ately made her re­alised what she want­ede to do with her life. “Then one day, my fa­ther picked me up from school and dropped me at th he Zayed Sports City Ice Rink,” she says. “It was awe­some. Back then, the sport wasn’t as big as it is now. There were only about 10 skaters... but now we have a lot more.”

It also helped that she al­ways had a keen in nter­est in bal­let and gymnastics — both neces-

sary for those think­ing about a fu­ture in fig­ure skat­ing.

“When we prac­tise fig­ure skat­ing, it in­volves a lot of other things too. We do a lot of bal­let, stretch­ing, power train­ing and other stuff. We have to get used to so many dif­fer­ent things as part of our fig­ure skat­ing train­ing.”

It may have started on a whim, but to­day Zahra spends four hours on train­ing and an­other two on ball play ev­ery day, six days a week. And she man­ages to do all this while bal­anc­ing her stud­ies at Abu Dhabi Uni­ver­sity. “To be hon­est, since I started ice skat­ing, my grades in school picked up,” she con­fesses. “It’s be­cause I know I have to study while I’m at the uni­ver­sity, as I won’t have time to study oth­er­wise. I keep my brain ac­tive while in uni­ver­sity.”

Luck­ily, the uni­ver­sity also un­der­stands, and is very ad­just­ing. “If I have a com­pe­ti­tion com­ing up, they al­low me to take in­de­pen­dent stud­ies. The uni­ver­sity sup­ports me a lot,” the 21- year- old ex­plains. “I would like to spe­cially thank Her High­ness Shaikha Fa­tima bint Mubarak and Shaikha Fa­tima bint Hazza — without their sup­port I would not have reached the level where I am in.”

As they say, it takes a vil­lage to raise a child: and Zahra’s fam­ily has been her big­gest sup­port sys­tem. “It was my dad who first got me to the rink,” she says. “My mother wasn’t re­ally all that keen at first, as she thought it was dan­ger­ous. But once she saw how much I loved it, she has al­ways been there for me. These days, I have my driv­ing li­cence so things are a lot eas­ier.”

Coach­ing plays a cru­cial role in any sport and when it comes to fig­ure skat­ing, it’s se­ri­ous busi­ness.

“We were hav­ing a lot of trou­ble with coaches,” ex­pains Zahra. “So my par­ents opened Emi­rates Ice Skat­ing Club to bring in the best coaches that all of us can work with. The five coaches are from all over the world — the UK, Rus­sia and the US — and I get to work with all of them. This is the only of­fi­cially reg­is­tered club in the UAE. And there are spe­cific classes on ice such as spin, jump, and har­ness, among others.”

ONCE YOU REACH A HIGH LEVEL IN ANY SPORT, IT’S MORE ABOUT YOUR MIND THAN YOUR BODY. THERE IS HES­I­TA­TION, FEAR AND LACK OF FO­CUS, AND THESE THINGS STOP YOU FROM EX­CELLING

Ice- skat­ing is slowly pick­ing up in the UAE. In 2013, the UAE ( rep­re­sented by the UAE Ice Sports Fed­er­a­tion) be­came a part of the In­ter­na­tional Skat­ing Union, which helps Zahra’s chances of par­tic­i­pat­ing in in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions. It also fu­elled her de­sire to qual­ify for the 2018 Win­ter Olympics.

“My goal is to com­pete in more in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, get more ex­pe­ri­ence and try to get more points. This year, I am also try­ing to qual­ify for the Worlds and Four Con­ti­nents. I am go­ing to the Win­ter Asian Games in 2017 and it will de­ter­mine my 2018 Win­ter Olympics slot.”

How­ever, vic­tory will not come easy. Ice- skat­ing, un­like many other sports, is not some­thing one can learn in a hurry — it takes years of prac­tice to qual­ify.

“There are some sports that you can learn in a year or two and then head to the Olympics,” ex­plains Zahra. “But when it comes to ice- skat­ing, it’s very hard. Only the best in the world reach that level. I am work­ing re­ally hard and hope­fully I will qual­ify. If I get to go to the Olympics, it will be re­ally amaz­ing. And even if I don’t qual­ify, at least I’ll know that I gave my best. And I hope I open up doors for other skaters to fol­low!”

Ice skat­ing is an ex­pen­sive sport, with each cos­tume cost­ing as much as Dh5,000. Some acts re­quire her to have two cos­tumes while some­times she may need even more cos­tumes de­pend­ing on the num­ber of com­pe­ti­tions. Luck­ily, Zahra is blessed with sup­port­ive spon­sors. The Fa­tima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy is her main backer while Edea spon­sors her boots, Para­mount her blades, Karisma her skates wear and Tips and Toes her beauty re­quire­ments.

“I have a whole team help­ing me out,” Zahra gushes, and it’s ob­vi­ous how grate­ful she is. “Fa­tima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy, my main spon­sor, is do­ing an amaz­ing job by help­ing so many other women ath­letes.”

With so many big back­ers, the pres­sure is on for this 21- year- old, but she is han­dling it with grace. The se­cret to suc­cess, says Zahra, is all about be­ing men­tally strong.

“Once you reach a high level in any sport, it’s more men­tal than phys­i­cal. It’s more about your mind than your body. There is al­ways that hes­i­ta­tion, fear and lack of fo­cus and it’s these things that can ac­tu­ally stop you from ex­celling in sports. In the last two years, I have been get­ting re­ally ner­vous with the pres­sure that I have put on my­self. I have worked with a few sports psy­chol­o­gists but I still need to con­trol my nerves. You think that it will get eas­ier with more tour­na­ments, but in re­al­ity, it doesn’t.”

“I have a se­lect team of peo­ple and very few friends who ac­tu­ally un­der­stand me be­cause it is tough for most to fig­ure out,” she con­tin­ues. “But these few peo­ple are im­por­tant when you have bad days. They are the ones who keep me go­ing.”

Zahra is also rather in­dif­fer­ent to the at­ten­tion the hi­jab has been get­ting in the sports world lately.

“I don’t re­ally think peo­ple are pay­ing a great amount of at­ten­tion to it. Peo­ple don’t judge me. Ev­ery­one is very sup­port­ive — they all want the UAE to grow and come on top in the fig­ure skat­ing cir­cle.”

[email protected] khalee­j­times. com

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