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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 March 2019

All eyes on gold as Team UAE train hard ahead of Special Olympics

With the Abu Dhabi 2019 Special Olympics Summer World Games just around the corner, Team UAE are hopeful

Special Olympics athletes training in Al Ain in the run up to the World Games next week - the UAE's volleyball team in a practice session. Victor Besa / The National 
Special Olympics athletes training in Al Ain in the run up to the World Games next week - the UAE's volleyball team in a practice session. Victor Besa / The National 

Danat Al Ain resort in Al Ain teems with excited guests and their cheers can be heard from miles away. Almost 300 athletes are training hard and, with the Abu Dhabi 2019 Special Olympics Summer World Games set to begin next week, they are on the home stretch.

Twice a day, groups of athletes head out with their coaches to practice, high-fiving each other and excitedly discussing how they will “win gold”. Their excitement is palpable — “You can just see how excited and happy they are for the games,” a coach tells The National.

Nada Ashraf, 20, from Egypt, is a power lifter. “I lift ten, ten,” she says at the resorts’ gymnasium, holding up ten fingers.

“I am very strong, look at my muscles,” she says flexing her biceps.

“You just pray for me. I pray every night. I can’t sleep, I am so excited.

“God willing, I will win and get the gold medal,” she says, now lifting a barbell loaded with 20 kilograms of weights.

During the World Games next week, Ms Ashraf will lift twice that weight. Her trainer, coach Faouzi Makki, is one of 97 coaches training members of the local teams. He is a father of three from Tunisia who trains a 12-strong power lifting team, aged between 13 and 42.

Many of the team coaches agree that training people of determination is rewarding, but requires two things: patience and love.

“He has friends and is happy that he is part of a team," said the mother of one of the athletes. Victor Besa / The National 
“He has friends and is happy that he is part of a team," said the mother of one of the athletes. Victor Besa / The National 

“They have become my children away from home,” says Mr Makki.

“If you give them love, they will give you the best they have.”

The majority of the competing athletes have autism or Down syndrome said Talal Al Hashemi, national director of Special Olympics UAE.

“For the first time, the UAE is participating in all 24 sports at the Special Olympics,” he says with pride. “This is a record for us.”

The athletes are from different clubs and centres across the country, such as the Zayed Higher Organisation, Al Thiqa Club and the Emirates Down syndrome Association.

“We even have three triathletes who will be swimming, cycling and running. We are so proud," he said.

The UAE team is not restricted to nationals, but is open to all residents, with some of the most remarkable athletes being from countries such as the UK, US, Syria, Palestine, India and Kenya.

And a young athletes programme will run alongside the games for those aged between two and seven to encourage a culture of sports.

The UAE Special Olympics World Games team is making its final preparations before the Games begin. Victor Besa / The National 
The UAE Special Olympics World Games team is making its final preparations before the Games begin. Victor Besa / The National 

“The Special Olympics has changed our lives,” says the Palestinian mother of volleyball player Abdelmajid Al Hajj, who wished to be identified only as Mona.

Mona patiently waits in the hotel lobby for her son to get ready for practice. He has autism.

“Look at him,” she says as he walks towards her with his teammates.

“He has friends and is happy that he is part of a team. At home all he talks about is winning a medal and shaking hands with the Crown Prince.

“He even dreams about it when he sleeps," she says with a laugh.

Mona says that training for the Special Olympics has helped build her son to up his personality and in turn has also allowed her as a mother to let go of him a little.

“I used to shelter him and was so worried about him going anywhere. They (the athletes) now feel like they can contribute to society. That has a huge impact for people of determination — making them feel valued, important and loved,” she said.

But for now, all eyes are in the prize and winning that gold medal.

“We will make the UAE proud. I will win the gold medal from my country and my father who was my biggest supporter,” says basketball player Saeed Al Suwaidi, whose father passed away in 2019.

“I will take the medal to his grave to show him. He will be so proud.”

The Special Olympics World Games will be held in the capital between March 14 and 21.

Updated: March 4, 2019 05:46 PM

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