x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The women lifting the sport to a new level

A place for one of their weightlifting team in the UAE contingent going to London was a small battle, compared to getting acceptance, writes Paul Radley.

UAE'S Weightlifting coach Najwan El Zawawi, right, with the team during the training session. Satish Kumar / The National
UAE'S Weightlifting coach Najwan El Zawawi, right, with the team during the training session. Satish Kumar / The National

Appearances can be deceptive. With her frizzy hair, braces on her teeth and standing around 5ft tall, as well as her shy demeanour, Khadija Al Fahad looks like she should be anywhere but inside a powerlifting gym.

She might be out doing whatever other 15-year-old Emirati girls do to pass the time. At a shopping mall, maybe, out with a group of friends. Or in the house, studying.

Instead, she hoists above her head a barbell that sags at either end under the weight, then, with the lift complete, lets it smash deafeningly to the floor.

"It is my ambition to compete at the London Olympics and then to become one of the top weightlifters in the world," she says.

A bold aspiration, no doubt. But it is not quite the impossible dream it might once have been.

The UAE have already guaranteed a place for one of their number to compete at the Games, via the recent Asian Weightlifting Championships in South Korea.

Al Fahad is one of the six or so lifters who are hoping to persuade both her coach and the technical committee governing the sport they are the one who should be granted the place on the plane to London.

The fact any of the Emirati women has the chance at all is a feat in itself, given the challenges in a sport whose rules precluded the wearing of Islamic dress until recently.

The pioneering crop of female weightlifters in this country have made a habit of not simply evading the obstacles in their way, but crashing them down. There is no escaping the fact they are competing in a man's world. Their training base is, ironically, at Al Shabab - "The Boys"- club in Dubai, where they are afforded an unprepossessing, windowless room in which to lift weights.

And yet it is they, not their male counterparts in the national team, who have will be appearing in London this summer.

"The men are delighted for the girls," says Jassim Abdulrahman Al Awazi, a board member for the Emirates Weightlifting Federation.

"We are working as one team here, and they are very happy that one of the girls in going to represent the UAE."

The unlikely germination of women's weightlifting here took root four years ago, when the Emirates Weightlifting Federation - which had just become independent from the national bodybuilding association - recruited a female coach.

Najwan El Zawawi, who competed for Egypt in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, acknowledges the advances that have been made since she arrived are still difficult to comprehend.

"We never thought we would be in a position where we have qualified for the Olympics by 2012," El Zawawi says. "We are really surprised, to be honest.

"When I came here four years ago, everyone told me I won't be successful because our girls won't be accepted as weightlifters. No one supported me, because no one thought it could be done."

However, El Zawawi arrived at a time when Emirati female sport was in the grip of a general feeling of can-do, thanks to Sheikha Maitha's appearance in taekwondo at the Beijing Olympics.

The coach scouted around for girls who were already active in other sports like handball, volleyball and basketball, and encouraged them to give weightlifting a try.

"I had to get them to trust me before they would take to it," El Zawawi says. "Before I could do anything, I made sure they loved me as a person, even if I am angry with them.

"I am very, very serious in this job. You can't mess around with a game like this. You have to be strong and tough. There is a lot of respect involved."

Having a squad of six for the championships in Korea - the first female team from any GCC nation - is a direct result of the relationship the coach has with her charges.

According to Al Awazi, who has been a member of the board since 2008, the best laid plans for female weightlifting would have gone to waste if El Zawawi had not broached the misgivings of the families of the weightlifters.

"We are not forcing them to come to our club to train, it is their choice," he says. "Yes, it was difficult with the families at the beginning, but now [El Zawawi] has a relationship with them, she calls them all the time, so they have been encouraged.

"We never advertised. All these girls are friends, and they bring their other friends. That is how the team has built up."

For their part, the national team's members are revelling in the fact they are inverting convention.

"If you say you are a lady doing weightlifting, people find it strange and difficult to accept," says Maitha Al Dosari, who, aged 22, is one of the team's senior members.

"It is something new and people will get used to it. It is a very good feeling representing my country. I never ever thought this would happen."

Al Fahad adds: "You really have to toughen up if you want to do well, then you become a more self-dependent people. I find it more exciting because less people do it. That is part of the attraction."

pradley@thenational.ae

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