Rio 2016 Paralympics: Nervous butterflies belie UAE athlete Zenab Al Breiki’s contagious smile
The swarm of nervous butterflies inside the stomach of Zenab Al Breiki are belied by her contagious, constant smile.
The Abu Dhabi student is only 20, far from home and preparing to make her Paralympic Games debut today, yet despite all the external pressures from family, friends and faceless compatriots, she sits inside the Athletes’ Village giggling uncontrollably.
“This always happens with me,” she says, laughing sheepishly from under a royal red hijab.
“It is how I deal with nerves. Actually, I am very scared and nervous because I know it is serious and I am very focused to be here. But if I do not win a medal, I will probably cry.”
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Al Breiki was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child and is restricted to a wheelchair, so older sister Asma has accompanied her to Brazil as her assistant.
Today, at 10am local time (5pm UAE), inside the same arena where Usain Bolt completed his historic triple-treble at last month’s Olympics, Asma will relinquish the handles of her sister’s chair and watch from the sidelines as Zenab competes in the F32 women’s club throw.
“My sister is always fighting with me because she wants me to get the medal,” Zenab says, casting her eyes towards Asma and letting out a wicked laugh.
“Sometimes I think it is more important for her than for me. She keeps joking: ‘If you bring me all the way out here to be your assistant and you do not get the medal, I will be very angry’!”
Asma, standing nearby and listening intently, also smiles warmly but does not interject.
“My sister says it needs to be gold, but I tell her it will be OK if I get the bronze,” Zenab says.
“When I was watching the Olympics on TV, I was not thinking ‘This will be me soon’, I was only thinking ‘Oh I hope I will get the medal’.
“I cannot enjoy it all because I am so nervous. It always happens this way with me. But I keep telling myself if I beat my personal best, I must be happy. Maybe my sister will not be, but I need to be happy.”
Although she only picked up the club for the first time in 2000, at the World Championships in Lyon three years later, a 17-year-old Zenab threw 14.19 metres to finish 11th. At the 2015 event at Doha, she improved to score 14.26m and finish seventh.
Having spent much of the past two months training in the Czech Republic and Poland, she will enter the Olympic Stadium hoping to throw close to 17m.
“I feel like I am peaking here, Inshallah,” she adds.
Training has become much easier in the Emirates now that Zenab’s school, Zayed University, have given permission for her coach to enter the campus.
Three or four times each week, they go together to the gym, working with a medicine ball, dumbbells and free-weights before heading outside to throw, first a discus, and then the club.
When her back starts to hurt and she complains to her sister, she is told to throw three more times.
“Sometimes I think my sister needs to try it herself,” Zenab says laughing. “Let’s make her sit in the chair and see how she gets on!”
In the Paralympic Village, home to more than 4,000 athletes this month, the fitness centre is understandably much larger and busier than those in the Emirates. It is equipped with 26 treadmills and five upper-body ergometers, a stationary cardio machine that allows seated athletes to workout by pumping their hands.
The machines can be operated in 19 languages, including Arabic.
“For me, this is the first time I have experienced something like this,” Zenab says.
“In the Village they have everything very close to each other. I keep telling my mum on the phone: ‘It’s incredible, mum! The Village is like an entire city for people with special needs!”
As well as having her sister with her at Rio, Zenab is also benefiting from being part of an 18-athlete UAE delegation that includes childhood friend Sara Al Senaani, who will compete in the F33 women’s shot put next Friday.
The two friends went to primary school together and now both train at the Abu Dhabi Sports Club for Special Needs. Al Senaani will be in the crowd today to cheer on her friend.
“It is already a dream come true to be here in Rio and competing at the Paralympic Games,” Zenab says.
“But it makes it even more special to be here with my sister as well as one of my best friends. I am so lucky.”
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