x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Kuwaiti 'can't imagine my life' without triathlons

Wadha Al Bader had to prove to herself she could compete at triathlons before making believers of her family.

Of participating in triathlons, Wadha Al Bader says, 'If I didn't to do this, what would I be doing in Kuwait? There's only so many malls you can go to, so many restaurants'.
Of participating in triathlons, Wadha Al Bader says, 'If I didn't to do this, what would I be doing in Kuwait? There's only so many malls you can go to, so many restaurants'.

Visualise a man-made lagoon of filtered water in southern Kuwait.

Picture the sandy barrenness, the nearby chalets under construction, the bizarre and massive jellyfish.

Home in.

Conjure the solitary figure swimming across because she could not find a pool that would permit her. Learn she drives 45 minutes each way three or four times weekly, hurrying to beat sundown after work, measuring out 800 metres in the lagoon using her GPS watch.

Note the out-sized diligence.

Know that the cold water of December doesn't keep her from plunging in with a wet suit.

Hear her say: "There'd be times when I was swimming and it was completely dark."

Somehow, only 26 months ago in January 2010, Wadha Al Bader had yet to venture into triathlon.

Carrying around 12 kilos more than nowadays, she never expected to sit in an Abu Dhabi hotel lobby teeming with svelte global triathletes, let alone refer to the 2011 Abu Dhabi International Triathlon as an "epiphany".

She had returned from six years of university in Wales and England. She had rummaged through Kuwait seeking a place for boxing because in England she had loved that sport's discipline and what she calls "the tough-love coaching style".

A friend had suggested a triathlon club, and by March of 2012 she said: "I cannot imagine my life without it, to be honest."

When first she tried a four-kilometre run, she stopped intermittently to walk and required 50 minutes.

Now she says of four kilometres, "That's a warm up to me," and says of 50 minutes, "I run 10 kilometres in that kind of time."

When first she tried a 50-metre length in a pool, "I was gasping for air and I was thinking to myself, 'How am I going to swim one-and-a-half kilometres if I just swam 50 meters'?"

When first she tried small triathlons, "I was always last," she said.

Well, through 2010 and early 2011, she finished her workdays as a pharmacist - a job that provides a cautionary window on the unfit - and bolted for her treasured pursuit: self-challenge.

She kept driving to the lagoon. She kept making batches of meals for given weeks. She began waking at 4am. The meaning of 10am changed profoundly from a wake-up time to "almost lunchtime".

By her first big-time triathlon, one year ago in Abu Dhabi, she regarded her swim as "very mediocre". Her bike "was quite good, but I had no idea what speed I was going because my speedometer decided not to work so I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing" rather like "cycling blind".

Her run went "OK" but featured a several-minute halt to help her collapsed countrywoman, Fatima Al Hamad, who ultimately finished.

Al Bader felt wowed at the professionals who zoomed past her, completed the course and returned to the hotel.

Four or five hours later, she stood with a group of fellow triathletes, checking the results on smartphones. She looked. She disbelieved. She looked again. She had won her age group. "I think that was the moment," she said. "It was" - and here she paused to hunt a word - "an epiphany."

She has willed herself into a transformed life. She even feels vaguely depressed on mandatory rest days. She had herself a golden moment in Oman in January when her athletic 22-year-old brother, Mohammed, watched her and marvelled: "I didn't know you could do this."

Her parents have gone from worried to proud even if they haven't yet spectated because she thinks it would inflate pressure. By now, by this second swim-bike-run through Abu Dhabi, she speaks educatedly against sloth: "If I didn't do this, what would I be doing in Kuwait? There's only so many malls you can go to, so many restaurants."

She sees imprudence all around: "Women have this distorted view that a 20-minute walk in the garden is acceptable. And they think, if I can do that, I can eat a couple of hamburgers for dinner."

And she lives the thorny path of the pioneer, trying in vain to persuade authorities to open doors, especially Olympic ones: "There needs to be a complete, complete reform of sports politics in Kuwait. There really has to be. The mentality really, really, really needs to be changed." Just this past January, she did find a pool with available hours; still, the lagoon does help define her.

"I love that place," she said. "It's open water. It's quite empty. There's usually nobody there to bother you. I do like it. It's very secluded.

"And, I hate to use the word, but it's actually very meditative."

The only snags would seem to be those jellyfish, none of which have stung, and the occasional obnoxious jet skier who motors over and makes waves, as if that would stand any chance of stopping her.