A record-breaking squad is flying the flag for UAE sport in Jakarta
Golden era: The shining stars behind UAE's greatest-ever Asian Games
The UAE's record-smashing sporting stars are celebrating golden glory – after notching up the nation's best Asian Games medal haul yet.
The history-making heroes have already secured three golds, six silvers and three bronzes at the huge event in Jakarta, Indonesia – surpassing the country's previous best set in Doha 12 years ago – with seven days of competition still to go.
They set the gold standard in jiu-jitsu, topping the medals in the table with a brace of golds, five silvers and another two bronzes.
Jiu-jitsu is proudly flying the UAE flag for sporting excellence – with its athletes determined to go the extra mile in a bid to top the podium.
Khalfan Belhoul fractured his ankle in his semi-final success in the men's 85-kilogram competition, ruling him out of the gold medal match, but winning him plenty of plaudits along with a well-earned silver medal.
The 138-strong squad are vying for medals in 23 disciplines – with many belying their youth to keep their cool and deliver in the pressure cooker atmosphere of elite sport.
On Friday and Sunday, Ali Al Lanjawi, won gold and silver in the Jet Ski Runabout Limited and the Jet Ski Endurance Runabout Open events. On Sunday, Saif Al Mansoori took bronze in the skeet, adding another chapter to the UAE's ongoing success story.
The UAE National Olympic Committee is using the Asian Games as a trial for youth ahead of the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games from October 6 to 18.
The Asian Games are not only a chance for rising talents to stake their claim ahead of that event and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 but also an important platform for non-Olympic sports, like jiu-jitsu and jet skiing.
As a young sport with rapidly changing techniques, it could be years before jiu-jitsu becomes a standardised Olympic sport, if it ever happens at all. This means that for Emirati jiu-jitsu fighters, standing on the podium at the Asian Games can be considered the ultimate achievement in their careers.
The gold rush might not be over just yet, either, with medal hopes in equestrian and cycling ready to keep the UAE riding high.
Here are some of the UAE’s medallists:
Faisal Al Ketbi, gold, men's 94kg division, jiu-jitsu
At the age of 30, Al Ketbi brings plenty of experience to the mat. He is the country’s most decorated jiu- jitsu athlete and has been ranked its top fighter for more than a decade. The Asian Games are the realisation of a childhood dream, and he hopes to return. “It won’t be easy with so many youngsters coming up but I will not be leaving my chair easily,” he told The National.
Mahra Al Hanaei: silver, women’s 49kg division, jiu-jitsu
Al Hanaei, 17, is one of three sisters representing the UAE at international competitions. Al Hanaei and her older sister Maha began training in 2011 after the sport was introduced at the Mariam bint Sultan Girls School in Al Ain through the UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s Schools Programme. She is one of four female athletes on the UAE jiu-jitsu squad at the Asian Games. All four, ages 16 to 18, train together at the Al Ain club and in future events, her young sister Hana will be another fighter to watch. Not just an athlete, Al Hanaei plans to become a medical doctor.
Hamad Nawad: gold, men’s 56kg division, jiu-jitsu
Nawad stepped on the podium to receive the UAE’s second gold medal on the eve of his 18th birthday. His parents and little sister watched the match on television from their home in Al Falah City, Abu Dhabi and it is his family who inspire him to balance his studies with his training since he began training at school at age 12.
“I started preparing for the Asian games since 2014, since the day that my coach told me about it,” says Nawad.
Immediately after securing the gold in a final against his teammate Khaled Al Balushi, he called his biggest supporter: his mother, Mona. On Instagram, he regularly posts photos crediting his success to her, comparing her to a full moon that lights the skies and a shinning pearl that lights the depths of the seas.
“My mom was my low-profile supporter from day one,” says Nawad. “She is the one who always gives me the motivation, so I don’t give up. On the first day when I began, it was hard for her to see me losing but she got used to it and she kept on supporting me until this day. Without her, I’m nothing.”
Omar Al Fadhli, silver, men's 62kg division, jiu-jitsu
As Al Fadhli sees it, time is on his side. He became the youngest athlete to represent the UAE senior national team at an international competition in July 2016, when he won silver at the Asian Beach Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Sri Lanka. Still only 18, he hopes to replicate the success he has had in the past six years in junior and juvenile divisions. For him, the silver medal is just the beginning. “I can take this experience forward,” Al Fadhli said after the match. “Most of my opponents were over 20. I have age on my side and a long journey ahead of me, so I’m happy with the result.”
Al Fadhli has earned a reputation for commitment. “Omar is part of the UAE jiu-jitsu project,” the national team’s Brazilian coach, Helder Medeiros told The National in April. “He was identified as a potential for the national team at a very young age and he has now had around seven years of training under this programme.”
Mohammed Al Qubaisi and Saeed Al Mazroui both won bronze for the men’s 77kg and 62kg divisions. Talib Al Kirbi, one of the squad’s most experienced players, won silver in the men’s 69kg division. Of the junior players, Khalid Al Balushi secured silver in the men’s 56kg division.