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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

With just days to go, the UAE's Special Olympics athletes eye gold 

The athletes have just completed their first week of intensive training ahead of the Mena Games on Wednesday

Salem Alkhaili, a Bocce player, is proud to be representing the UAE in the Special Olympics Mena Games. Victor Besa / The National
Salem Alkhaili, a Bocce player, is proud to be representing the UAE in the Special Olympics Mena Games. Victor Besa / The National

In just a few days, sports clubs across Al Ain will empty as buses are loaded with the UAE’s Special Olympic athletes ready to descend on Abu Dhabi city ahead of the regional games.

The athletes have just completed their first week of intensive training, having transformed the otherwise sleepy Garden City into an arena for drills and discipline.

Despite their rigorous schedules the athletes show no sign of slowing down, powered by their resolve to bring home the gold.

“We play for the UAE and we play to win. We are champions," says Abdulaziz Gharib.

And they are champions. The 28-year-old has Bocce player has Down syndrome but his developmental disability has never slowed him down, having previously earned a gold medal for his country.

Mahmoud Jaharoo rolls the ball during a training session for the UAE Bocce team in Al Ain. Victor Besa / The National
Mahmoud Jaharoo rolls the ball during a training session for the UAE Bocce team in Al Ain. Victor Besa / The National

Mr Gharib is in good company, almost every athlete representing the UAE has at least a handful of gold and silver medals that they won at other tournaments in Egypt, Greece, the US.

On Wednesday, more than 1,000 athletes from 32 countries will be taking part in the Mena IX Games.

Comprising almost 20 per cent of participants, the UAE’s athletes are confident they will win each of the 16 sports they will be competing in.

“We are better than the other teams. We will win,” Nadia Drieb says confidently. The table tennis player has been training twice a day alongside her teammates.

Her coach, Rania Elkhabery supports Ms Drieb’s sentiments, saying the team are a force to be reckoned with.

"They are very talented. To train them, we play against them and they beat us. They will win regardless of who they compete with,” she says. “They are determined to win.”

The Mena Games and the World Games in 2019 are a chance for the athletes to show the world what they are capable of and if their training sessions are anything to go by, they will have a great time doing it too.

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“This is why participating in sports is so important for them,” says Zafrana Al Hosani, a 64-year-old mother of two daughters with special needs. She is also the supervisor of the Special Olympics bowling teams.

“You can see the change with your own eyes so it surprises me when others don’t support them or don’t understand the importance of these tournaments.”

The upcoming competition will be the ninth regional games and will act as preparation for the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

As the countdown continues, eight venues across the capital are preparing for the deluge of athletes. The games will be hosted at Adnec, Zayed Sports City, Yas Marina Circuit, NYUAD, the Officer’s Club, Mubadala IPC Arena, Al Jazira Sports Club and Al Forsan Club.

The UAE Special Olympic swimming team trains in Al Ain ahead of the regional games on Wednesday. Victor Besa / The National
The UAE Special Olympic swimming team trains in Al Ain ahead of the regional games on Wednesday. Victor Besa / The National

Last year, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, launched a National Strategy for Empowering People with Disabilities.

The six-part policy is aimed at creating an inclusive society for those with special needs and their families.

Referring to people with disabilities as "People of Determination", he said an advisory board for people with disabilities has been set up and employees dedicated to improving services will be appointed to “every service-related organisation”.

“The achievements that people of determination have made in various spheres over the past years are proof that determination and strong will can do the impossible and encourage people to counter challenges and difficult circumstances while firmly achieving their goals,” Sheikh Mohammed said at the time.

And this week the UAE’s Special Olympic athletes aim to prove it.

"I am of course the best," says basketball player Mariam Ahmed, who has Down syndrome.

"Come to the games and see the UAE team win."