UAE Portrait of a Nation: The steely Al Ain nurse taking the ironman world in her stride
Nurse Sylvia George is inspired to compete by the little fighters in Al Ain Hospital's neonatal unit
Al Ain nurse-turned-athlete Sylvia George is a woman with a kind heart and an iron will.
When she is not tending to patients, she runs, rides a bike or hits the water in preparation for her next ironman competition.
For the mother of two, nursing is her calling and sport her essential stress reliever.
When in the heat of competition, her unyielding dedication to her profession proves an inspiration to push her over the finish line when her bones ache and her mind tires.
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Now 48, she has her sights set on success in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in France next month, where she must complete a gruelling triple-header comprised of a swim, bicycle ride and run.
It is a road well travelled for Ms George, who has completed a full ironman race and eight half ironmans – an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact she learnt to swim only when she was 42.
“Sport is my stress reliever and means everything to me,” Ms George says.
She juggles a full-time job managing a neonatal intensive care unit, where she cares for ill and premature babies, with home-schooling a 14-year-old son, but somehow still finds time to train six times a week.
“At some of my races, sometimes when I struggle, I think of all these babies who come in small and sick and leave with big smiles,” she says.
“We see them after a year and how they survive. For me, if they can fight like this then I can do anything.” Ms George wakes up at 4am every day and goes for a run before starting her work shift, which ends at 4pm.
She then swims or cycles after work.
Her son joins her in many of her races, while her husband has also taken part in triathlons.
“This is bonding time for us and how we spend quality time. We cycle together, run together and compete together,” she says.
“One day, I saw a 60-year-old couple participating and I thought, I am a nurse, I should be an example.”
In her first race, she swam with a life jacket because she had not yet mastered swimming, “but I was determined”, she says. She completed her first triathlon in 2013, swimming in the sea off Abu Dhabi and cycling along the Corniche past the Marina and back.
“I didn’t come first or second. I was one of the last but I finished the race,” she said.
It has been a long journey for Ms George.
In 2002, she left a husband and two-year-old daughter behind in South Africa and came to the UAE because she was curious.
She was mystified and intrigued by exotic images of Bedouins riding camels across towering sand dunes.
“It was more curiosity. I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “The plan was to come for one year.
“I told my husband that I liked what I saw. I liked the difference.
“When I came here, I was a bit disappointed because it was not the desert I expected.
“I was expecting desert and women covered in burqas.
“I saw that this was totally the opposite and nothing like I thought it was.
“I read a lot and in many books it said that we had to cover up, we weren’t allowed to go out without a male, that I wasn’t allowed to drive and when I came it was totally the opposite.
“Nobody asked me to wear a shayla or abaya or not to go out or anything.”
The shayla she bought remains untouched.
About three years after she came to the UAE, her husband joined her.
“He could see that I loved it here, I was safe. I enjoyed my job, the people.”
Her first patient turned 17 this year. “I think they are also why I stayed,” she says.
“My patients and the families. People here are different and nothing like I expected.
“When I came, I thought ... I should be scared of them and should not talk to them.
“Then I discovered that was not true. They are friendly, honest, and open and have good hearts.
“It was just different, and I loved it.”
Updated: August 1, 2019 04:03 PM