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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

How the UAE's gilded jiu-jitsu team captured the hearts of the nation with Asian Games glory

Athletes look forward to some time off after landing back in Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan welcomes the UAE national jiu-jitsu team home from the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, at a reception at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Leslie Pableo / The National
Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan welcomes the UAE national jiu-jitsu team home from the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, at a reception at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Leslie Pableo / The National

Hessa Al Shamsi, a starlet of the UAE jiu-jitsu team, beamed with pride when she touched down at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

“It was like living a dream because it’s the first time jiu-jitsu was in the Asian Games,” said Al Shamsi, who competed in the 62-kilogram division.

“It was a tough competition but we did our job of representing our country as best as we could.”

The 17-year-old, part of the 16-member squad which returned from Jakarta on Monday night, said the high-profile media attention the games attracted was a lesson in staying cool under pressure.

The athletes' proud families piled into the VIP terminal and looked on as Sheikh Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan presented each athlete with a garland of red and white roses.

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Although she missed out on a medal, Al Shamsi said the experience was invaluable and she hoped future competitions would be even more successful.

“It’s only two mats out there and all eyes are on you," she said. "That’s a different pressure than the sport itself.

“It’s an opportunity to show what you have on the mat. I didn’t get a medal but it’s a goal for me to get ahead and to move on.

“I’m really proud because I did my best to really show what do I have in jiu-jitsu. To be young and competing there is an amazing opportunity.”

For Al Shamsi’s teammate, Mahra Al Hanaei, who won silver in the women’s 49kg division, the end of the Games draws another ambition into focus: medical school.

Her first-year classes at UAE University began this week, but she received an exemption to join a few weeks later. Her favourite moment of the Games?

“When I went to the podium, it was amazing,” she said.

Al Hanaei's parents met her at the airport with a bouquet of flowers. “My family are the first people who supported me in the game and they are so happy and proud of me because of what’s happening in my jiu-jitsu life.”

Hamad Nawad was greeted at the airport by his mother, sister and a birthday cake decorated with a photo of him in his jiu-jitsu uniform.

He celebrated his 18th birthday at the Games in Indonesia, one day after winning a gold medal in the 56kg division.

Hamad Nawad, gold medallist in the 56kg division, celebrates his 18th birthday with a cake from his parents, on arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Leslie Pableo / The National 
Hamad Nawad, gold medallist in the 56kg division, celebrates his birthday with a cake given to him by his mother at the airport. Leslie Pableo / The National

His victory was also celebrated by his extended family in Yemen, where his grandmother bought a cake in his honour to celebrate with his aunts at a small party in Sana’a. Nawad’s mother and grandmother sent messages with photos of the cakes and simultaneous celebrations back and forth to each other from Abu Dhabi and Sana’a.

“I am very happy to be back with my family,” said Nawad, who will begin his final year of high school this week.

“The past two months were very hard months and it was almost like I didn’t see them. Now that I am back with them, they are very happy and I am happy too.”

He gave his gold medal to his mother, Mona, who wore it proudly over her abaya.

The athletes said the high level of competition at the Games provided invaluable experience.

“I learnt that in a competition like this you can never stop for one second,” said Khalid Al Balooshi, 17, who won silver in the men’s 56kg division.

“Before stepping onto the mat my professor was with me and telling me calm down, focus on the fight and only on the fight. I never lost focus and that’s why I won.”

Marina Ribeiro, who coached the team for three weeks in the United States before the tournament, was already looking ahead. “I feel very proud,” she said. “All the team, both the boys and the girls, fought very well. For me it was amazing to be there with the girls, they were very brave and they fought to the end.”

Faisal Al Ketbi, the most senior athlete on the national squad and a gold medallist in the 94kg division, said the popularity of jiu jitsu at the Asian Games could led to its qualification as an Olympic sport.

“We’ll have three days of celebrating and then we’ll go back into training hard for other competitions. We want to inspire kids and help prepare the next generation,” he said.

“International jiu jitsu now has made the second biggest step it can,” said Al Ketbi. “After the Asian Games, there is only the Olympic Games, so jiu jitsu is going on the right path, jiu jitsu is going to the Olympics.

“Everybody is talking about this competition. Everybody is saying that the competition was amazing and that competition is good for everybody.

“We are waiting for the next step. That’s what we’re saying.”