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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Emirati Women’s Day: Zahra Lari, bidding for Winter Olympics history, continues to inspire 'younger generation'

Figure skater talks to Amith Passela about her status as a UAE role model and her attempts to qualify for the Pyeongchang Games.

Zahra Lari is bidding to be the first Emirati to compete at the Winter Olympics. Christopher Pike / The National
Zahra Lari is bidding to be the first Emirati to compete at the Winter Olympics. Christopher Pike / The National

It is a busy time for Zahra Lari at present as the figure skater works on her final preparations ahead of trying to make history by becoming the first Emirati to qualify for the Winter Olympics.

However, she will take time out on Monday to celebrate Emirati Women's Day, an event that gives her great pride.

“The Emirati Women’s Day means a lot to me and all the others like me, as a lot of people internationally think that we are the stereotype doing nothing," Lari, 22, said.

“But actually the Emirati women work much harder to be where they are today. I would say to all Emirati women to find something they really love and want to do. It can be anything from sports to business, and never allow somebody to bring you down on one’s capabilities.”

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Lari has over 12,000 followers on social media, many of whom have approached her on the rink to compliment her status as a source of inspiration to Emirati girls in sports.

“That makes me happy,” she said. “When I first started skating it was all about winning competitions, but not anymore, because now it’s a lot more than winning medals.

“It’s really good to go out there and win but for me it’s now more about going out there to inspire the younger generation, especially the little kids, to show them how to go out there and do what they love. It makes me very proud.”

Lari is preparing for the 2018 Winter Olympics Qualifier in Oberstdorf, Germany, from September 27 to 30. If Lari is successful in the qualifier, she will become the first Emirati athlete to make it to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea next February.

Lari is making her first appearance in a qualifier for the Winter Olympics and faces a tough task alongside hundreds of skaters from around the world. Only the top six will qualify.

“It is a very big competition and for me, just being part of the qualifier and seeing the UAE flag is a big deal,” she said when asked of her chances of making it to the Olympics.

She said her biggest inspiration is Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women's Union, Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation and President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood

“She has shown that Emirati women can do anything they want by establishing the Fatima bint Mubarak Academy (FBMA),” she said.

FBMA is Lari’s main sponsor and she says she wouldn’t have come this far without their support.

“They have supported from Day 1 and that’s been a long time,” said Lari, who is preparing for her first competition of the season in Slovenia this weekend. It will also be her solitary prep-competition before heading for the Winter Olympics qualifier.

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“The preparation is the same, no matter what competition I’m taking part in, whether it be an international event or a qualifier,” she said. “I never look on one competition as better than the other. They all count same to me.

“I have been working really hard this summer. I spent two weeks in Italy and two weeks in Estonia. It was six hours of training, six days a week. I think my skating improved a lot during the summer and that’s what I wanted to do. I really worked on the jumps, spin skills and spins to try to get my programme ready for the season.”

Lari has been training with her Russian coach Alexandra Levleva for the past seven months and improved her rating by 20 points, which she said is a “big improvement”.

Lari paved the way for Muslim women to compete with a hijab after several meetings with the International Skating Union (ISU), the governing body for the sport, to allow skaters to compete with the headscarf.

Last year, Nike included Lari in an advertisement featuring Muslim women wearing the hijab.

“This was a huge accomplishment for me personally because I was in the process of being the first hijab-wearing figure skater,” she said. “I hope I can inspire a lot of other girls as Nike, one of the biggest sporting brands in the world, did for us.”

Lari has a year and a half to complete her studies on environmental health and safety at the Abu Dhabi University and has managed to balance both her skating and studies well.

However, there are times when it’s hard for her to keep herself motivated during her non-stop training regime. While the university has been supportive, Lari insisted they have rules and she can’t skip too many classes.

“There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed so early but those are the days that make you work harder,” she said. “My coach always tells me that if I don’t want to jump on days that I don’t feel like, to turn to the basics instead. She knows my limits and she doesn’t push me on some days.

“So it’s challenging as I also plan to participate in some of the international competitions in the coming months."