x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Handicap? She's never heard of it

A stroke unexpectedly brings the career of an athlete to an end, but she pushes forward to become the first Emirati woman to compete in the Paralympics.

Thuraya Al Zaabi at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, in December 2010.
Thuraya Al Zaabi at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, in December 2010.

Thuraya Al Zaabi was an active sportswoman who excelled in athletics, cycling and basketball, and dreamed of winning accolades for her efforts.

But those dreams suffered a cruel setback. At the age of 29, Al Zaabi had a stroke that left her permanently paralysed on her left side. She thought her dream was over.

But today, at 41, she is back in the limelight, winning medals as a disabled athlete and proud of her role as "an ambassador for my country".

"My disability never stopped me from being a sportswoman," said Al Zaabi, who will compete in the shot put today at the Arab Games in Doha. "It was very hard for me at that time, but as I recovered I thought it was best to think positively and get on with my life.

"Life is not the same for me and will never be, but getting back to sports has done me a world of good."

Al Zaabi became the first Emirati woman to compete in the Paralympics, in 2008 at Beijing, in javelin and discus. She has qualified for next year's Paralympic Games in London.

"My wish is to be an ambassador of my country at international events - to present the good image of the Emirati girl, smiling, successful and loving," she said.

Rashid Omar, who competes for the UAE in table tennis, said Al Zaabi was a role model.

"She has led by example and her handicap hasn't stopped her from meeting the challenges in life," Omar said.

"Not many athletes would dare to return to competition after such a tragic incident. Thuraya not only returned but is winning medals and accolades. I really admire her courage."

Al Zaabi went through a difficult period after her stroke, dealing with medication and emotional trauma. But she soon returned to sports.

She almost broke down when asked about the biggest difficulty she endured after the stroke.

"Tension," Al Zaabi said. "I was a healthy person taking part in athletics, played basketball and took part in cycling competitions. And all of a sudden I became disabled."

When she found her way back to athletics, "I found that javelin throwing and the shot put were suitable in my case, although they are not easy sports at the competitive level".

Al Zaabi, who won gold medals in both disciplines at last year's Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, trains daily at the Al Thiqah Club for the Handicapped in Sharjah to prepare for the Paralympics.

"I want to do well and bring a good name for the UAE at the London Paralympics," she said. "It may be the last time I will be at a Paralympic Games. Sports have given me so much pleasure and happiness, even as a disabled athlete.

"There has been plenty of support for me from my family members. The Al Thiqah Club and officials of the UAE Disabled Sports Federation have provided me all the backing that I need for training opportunities and my participation at international level."

Al Zaabi is not sure of what her future will hold after leaving sport.

"Life is full of uncertainties," she said. "Right now I am preparing and focused on the two disciplines I will take part in at the summer Paralympics. But I don't know what lies ahead between now and the competition.

"I have a better understanding of life than what I would have had before I was confined to the wheelchair. I begin to appreciate, love and do things that I wouldn't have done as a normal person.

"God has given me more strength to face the world and I live by that."

apassela@thenational.ae