Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

UAE women's netball team member battling cancer hopes to inspire Emiratis to take up the sport

Sara Donovan has been playing netball since she was a young girl and is now motivating girls in UAE to take up the sport and represent the country on a global stage

Sara Donovan, PE teacher and head of the UAE netball team at Dubai College, hopes to inspire Emirati women to take up netball. Pawan Singh / The National 
Sara Donovan, PE teacher and head of the UAE netball team at Dubai College, hopes to inspire Emirati women to take up netball. Pawan Singh / The National 

A teacher who led the women’s UAE netball team to international victory this month says she was determined not to let anything get in the way of success – even cancer.

Sara Donovan and the rest of the national women’s netball team made history two weeks ago when they became the first UAE team to compete in the Netball European Championship in Gibraltar. The women brought home the bronze.

Just months before, Ms Donovan had advanced stage breast cancer diagnosed. Determined not to let the disease hold her back, she continued to train.

The team went on to score almost 200 goals in four games in Gibraltar and all 12 players received a Senior Players cap. It was the first time the UAE was represented on a global stage for netball and the team is now on its way to getting a world ranking.

“I had the first training session for the UAE Netball Association just after my first treatment in January,” said Ms Donovan.

“I was determined to get to the training session. I wasn’t going to let this illness define me. As a physically active person, I didn’t want this to halt me in my tracks.”

Ms Donovan is a physical education teacher at Dubai College and stays active while off duty by taking part in triathlons. She is determined to be a positive example to young women and refused to let chemotherapy stop her from training.

“I was determined to keep the training going,” she said. Struggling with dehydration and exhaustion took a toll on the athlete but she kept herself going with the occasional nap when she felt too tired.

Ms Donavon hopes the netball team’s victory and her perseverance will encourage Emirati women to take up the sport.

“It’s a non-contact sport, it’s an all-female sport, it can be played indoors. It’s a perfect fit for the population here. I’m really proud to be part of a sport pushing forward female participation,” she said.

Like most who were raised in the UK, Ms Donovan grew up playing netball. She moved to the UAE ten years ago and is determined to leave behind a legacy of netball players.


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“It would be fantastic to go with a sport that is completely female driven,” she said.

With the help of Ms Donovan, the UAE Netball Association is now working to develop and implement an Emiratisation programme.

“As part of the Emiratisation programme for UAE Netball, I went to schools in Al Ain and introduced girls to netball. I showed them the games on You Tube and promised I would go back and help them play," she said, adding that women could take part in the sport wearing hijab and tracksuits if they felt more comfortable.

Susanne Skelding, team manager of UAE Netball Association, said the sport was ideal for Emiratis since it is played women-only.

“It’s difficult for Emirati girls to play sports and there are many barriers. Netball is a great sport to break down some of those barriers as it is a female-only sport. It’s probably the only one played in this country.”

The association is working with the Ministry of Education to scout potential locations like ladies’ clubs and schools, where women can get involved in the sport.

“Sara is the perfect role model because she is overcoming cancer. At 40, she was the oldest person in the team at the Europe championship. She is inspiring women to take up sports. We are trying to go to more and more to Emirati schools and encourage them. There is a clear pathway for young Emirati women to come in. It’s a great opportunity for someone to come up and take an interest in the game, said Ms Skelding.

Netball has been mainly played by expatriates in the UAE for more than 40 years. More than 150 teams take part in the sport every week across the country.

Updated: May 20, 2018 02:41 PM