( 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
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.”
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