Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Emirati paralympic athlete has no time for naysayers

Sara Al Senaani was inspired to take up sport when she saw Jamaica’s Usain Bolt make Olympic history

Sara Al Senaani practises shot put with a coach at the Dubai Club for People of Determination. She was the first Emirati woman to win a medal for her country in the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016. Ms Al Senaani has cerebral palsy and throws while strapped in to a chair for safety. Victor Besa / The National
Sara Al Senaani practises shot put with a coach at the Dubai Club for People of Determination. She was the first Emirati woman to win a medal for her country in the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016. Ms Al Senaani has cerebral palsy and throws while strapped in to a chair for safety. Victor Besa / The National

The first Emirati woman ever to win a medal for her country in the Paralympic Games has no time for naysayers who think women and girls with special needs should not be playing sport.

Sara Al Senaani, 27, made history three years ago when she earned a bronze medal in shot put at the Paralympic Games in Rio.

She reflects the spirit shown by more than 1,400 para-athletes who competed in 172 track and field events at the World Para Athletic Championships last week in Dubai.

“I tell people my body is special needs. God gave me this body. I didn’t chose it. But my mind is OK, my mind is strong,” Ms Al Senaani told The National.

“People say sport is not for girls, shot put is too heavy. I don’t listen to these people. I want to play sports for my country.”

Ms Al Senaani has cerebral palsy and, as a result, struggles with co-ordination and balance. The right side of her body is weaker than the left.

Buckled into a seat with a belt pulled securely over her hips, her right hand strapped on to a pole, she leans back before heaving forward to hurl the shot put.

People say sport is not for girls, shot put is too heavy. I don’t listen to these people

Sara Al Senaani, shot put para-athlete

Ms Al Senaani competes in the F33 seated position category for track and field athletes with cerebral palsy or other neurological conditions that affect muscle co-ordination and control.

In Rio, she clinched the third spot with a throw of 5.09m and has since thrown a personal best of 5.52m in the West Asian games in September.

Although she did not win a medal this time in Dubai, she remains focused on improving her game at the 2020 ASEAN Para Games in the Philippines in January and the Fazza championships in Dubai later next year.

Ms Al Senaani's story goes back to 2008 when she saw Usain Bolt on television make Olympic history.

The Jamaican set world records in the 100m, 200m and won gold in the 4x100m relay in the Beijing Olympics.

“I was so excited. I told my family this is [where] I want to be. I want to win medals,” she said.

Her family has backed her sporting career and supported her journey since.

The world of sport opened up when a physiotherapist told her of a sports clubs for people with special needs.

Ms Senaani tried various sports including table tennis, javelin, discus and shot put and won numerous national medals in the field events.

She earned a gold medal — her first overseas medal — in shot put and bronze in javelin during the regional championships in Kuwait in 2011.

She quickly realised that her strength lay in shot put and focused her training to that sport.

A dedicated athlete, her daily sessions include strength training in the gym as well as field practice. This intensifies to morning and evening workouts before major competitions.

Reading motivational books during training camps helps improve her concentration.

Her message to parents of children with disabilities is to allow them to find out what they enjoy.

“I tell them they can do anything. Maybe sport, maybe art, maybe photography,” said Ms Al Senaani, who has a diploma in health and safety from the Al Jazirah Institute of Science and Technology and trains at the Abu Dhabi Club for Special Needs.

She is driven by the ambition to hear the UAE national anthem at a world championship when she wins gold.

“That is my dream. I train hard for this,” Ms Al Senaani said.

Sport has been her way to give back for the support her family received from the government for her education and treatment of her condition.

“I wanted to do something for my country and leaders. They have helped me in everything. I thought I will play a sport to say thank you.”

Updated: November 17, 2019 09:15 PM

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