The odds are not in favour of Emirati ice skater Zahra Lari qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics. For starters, she lives in the desert.
The sport has been all but non-existent in the UAE until recently, which explains the third factor against her: she did not start professional figure skater training until she was 12, compared to the average age of three.
Adding to the 20-year-old’s challenge, she is the first and only contestant to wear an Islamic headscarf.
But to Lari, none of that matters; she has her eyes on the prize.
“I want to prove that not only can a covered Muslim female but also someone coming from the desert, participate in a winter sport at the Winter Olympics. That would be an amazing thing for me to do,” she tells Arabian Business.
And she may well be on her way to proving the point.
In 2012, the Emirati national became the first figure skater from the Gulf to compete in the European Cup.
In February 2013, she was the first to represent the UAE in Slovakia as an official member of the International Skating Union (ISU).
Following that, she took part in the Sport Land Trophy competition in Budapest and contested against 20 world-class participants.
Today, her aim is the Olympics.
In order to qualify, Lari must meet strict guidelines set out by the Olympic Charter and the international federation governing the sport, the ISU. She will also need to perform exceptionally well at an ISU international competition in 2017 — the final opportunity to qualify.
Lari trains six hours a day, six days a week to make sure she is ready. But that wasn’t always the case.
“When I first started skating I never dreamt that I would reach this stage and level in skating that I am at now,” she says.
“My original plan was to just learn how to master basic skating. It never really entered my mind that I would continue on to learn the various technically complicated spins or jumps.”
Her dream started after watching the movie ‘Ice Princess’. Now she herself is known as ‘the Ice Princess in the Hijab’, which, she says, is befitting.
“I started ice skating after watching [the movie]. So I guess it’s only right that they call me that,” she says.
While Lari is the only professional figure skater who wears a headscarf, she is not the only certified athlete to do so.
In 2012, several covered Muslim women from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Afghanistan took part in the Olympics for the first time. Saudi Arabia’s judo candidate Wojdan Shaherkani was only 16 years old at the time. Qatar’s Noor Hussain Al Malki participated in the 100 metre sprint at 17.
Afghanistan’s 23-year-old Tahmina Kohistani also was a sprinter, recording a time only four seconds less than world record holder Florence Griffith-Joyner.
Although the women reported political and religious discrimination and harassment for their involvement in the sports, their participation marked an historic moment, breaking centuries of prohibition. Even Shaherkani’s participation was uncertain just days before the London Olympics kicked off, with the International Judo Federation refusing to allow her to wear the headscarf on the basis of safety concerns.
The trials faced by these women helped pave an easier way for Lari, who today finds little hardship related to her religious dress code.
“I’m very lucky and haven’t found any difficulties due to my hijab. I have both Muslim and non-Muslim skating friends all over the world and they all support me and understand my hopes, dreams and goals. We all have a mutual respect for one another,” she says.
However, her father’s reaction to her ice skating was not so agreeable, Lari says. While her American-raised mother supporter her goal, Lari says her father was initially reluctant.
“To be honest, it was a little bit complicated to convince my father to allow me to continue. My mum supported and understood how far I had come because she was always with me at the rink,” Lari says.
“When my father realised how passionate and dedicated I am to this sport, he supported me 100 percent. [He] still does, now more than ever.”
Despite the sizeable support she gets at home, Lari admits she sometimes struggles to keep up with her peers.
“The most difficult thing is when I have bad days and no matter what I do my body just doesn’t cooperate and I can’t achieve anything in practice that day. I have to push myself even harder on those days. I know that when I fall I must get right back up and try again and again until I get it. Those are days that I find difficult,” she says.
But finding determination to get back up is the least of Lari’s challenges. Meanwhile, her competitors all have an upper hand, simply because of where they live.
In Europe, for example, figure skating has been celebrated for centuries and advanced facilities and coaches are available at a much larger scale than in the UAE, where the sport is relatively new.
“I have more challenges [than the other contestants]. The main one is the amount of experience that the others have in competing. I have to work harder and learn everything at a faster pace,” she says.
“It’s not easy to get over the stress and fear before a competition.
“Most countries compete with a team. I am always alone so I don’t have that group support around me. It’s usually just me, my mum and my coach.”
Regardless, Lari has high hopes, both for her and the female Emirati ice skaters coming up the ranks behind her.
“If I don’t qualify for the 2018 Olympics, then I will try for 2022. I can’t expect our levels to be the same at this point, but I do feel that we are bridging the gap at an unbelievable pace,” she says.
“I know that I will eventually stop competitive skating but I really don’t see myself giving up on the sport completely. There are a lot of new and upcoming UAE national skaters and I would love to have the opportunity to help them reach their own goals and for this beautiful sport to continue to grow in the UAE.”
She currently trains at the Zayed Sports City ice rink in Abu Dhabi, alongside studying a university degree in environmental health and safety. The heavy load means she often has to defer semesters to cope with high competition seasons.
While Lari might not be the epitome of a typical Olympic ice skater, chances are she does not need to be. Already, she’s reached far more than most expected from the girl in the hijab who lives in the desert.
“I try not to listen to any negative comments from anyone. I know what I want to do and since I have the support of my country and family, that is all that matters,” she says.For all the latest lifestyle news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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