Taking the plunge: Meet the UAE’s 1st female Olympic swimmer

Nada Al Bedwawi became the UAE’s first ever Olympic female swimmer when she took part in the 50m freestyle heats in Rio

Ali Khaled
Ali Khaled - Special to Al Arabiya English
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The Rio Olympics may be drawing to a close, but for one young Emirati athlete, the memory of her time in Brazil will live on for some time yet.

Nada Al Bedwawi became the UAE’s first ever Olympic female swimmer when she took part in the 50m freestyle heats in Rio.

She had already made history a few days earlier by becoming the second Emirati female to carry the country’s flag at an opening ceremony, following in the footsteps of Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

“It was a great honor for me to carry the flag, I think it’s the greatest honor any athlete could get at the Olympic games,” said Al Bedwawi, who is studying for a biology degree at NYU in Abu Dhabi.

“It was an overwhelming, exciting and an honorable feeling to be the UAE’s flag bearer at Rio 2016. I am very proud, I think it delivered a powerful message to the world on how the UAE supports women and youth sports.”

It is not the first time that the 19-year-old has trailed a blaze for Emirati sport. Last year in Kazan, Al Bedwawi became the country’s first female swimmer at the Fina World Championships.

The Olympics, however, are a step up even from those heady heights.

“Rio was a great experience,” she said. “It was also the best swimming-wise experience I have had in my three to four years of swimming. It gave me the chance to mingle with many swimmers and coaches from different countries from Egypt to Finland, and I learned a lot from their advice and experience.”

Though Al Bedwawi did not qualify from her heat – finishing third out of four in the race – she managed to record a personal best time of 33.42 seconds, an achievement she is very proud of.

“The training in Rio was going well,” she said. “We kept simulating race conditions to get me ready for the actual competition, and overall the training went really well, I felt ready and reflected that in my time. The race was great, I did better than I expected but there is always room for improvement and I am glad that I put myself out there and finished my race and now I can officially call myself an Olympian.”

The young Emirati also insisted that the bad press that Rio attracted on the organizational side was mostly exaggerated.

“The Olympic village did have great training facilities and accommodation contrary to what the media says.”

Having returned home to a hero’s welcome from family and friends, Al Bedwawi is now keen to raise the profile of swimming across the Emirates. She has already gone on record in saying she has ambitions to take part in relay races if only there were more female swimmers making the grade.

The nature of swimming and its potentially revealing attire means that, culturally, it has yet to be embraced in the UAE like other sports, with many aspiring participants struggling for parental approval and encouragement.

“I am very lucky to have the support of my family, I would not have been able to do this without them,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is an element still greatly missing in some Emirati parents, and not just towards swimming but towards sports in general, and I hope this changes in the near future.

“We have world class facilities and they should be taken advantage of,” she said, in a nod towards the Hamdan Complex in Dubai among other centers across the country.
“The only thing missing is the motivation to do so.”

Women in sports is less of a taboo subject in the region these days, but Al Bedwawi believes there is still work to be done before it becomes a norm. She has become a strong advocate for the introduction of swimming and other sports to local schools in a more competitive manner.

“Speaking from personal experience, my high school did not care at all about sports during my time there and neither do so many other UAE schools,” she said. “There is an obvious correlation between taking part in sports and performing well academically and more schools should realize that and start effectively implementing sports as part of their curriculum.

“The funding is available but much more should be allocated to sports in this case than to certain unnecessary academic programs.”

Al Bedwawi now returns to her academic studies and, with appetite whet by the experience in Rio, she is already dreaming of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where she hopes to become the first Emirati to win a medal in the pool.

Having broken down barriers for coming generations, she hopes other Emirati female swimmers and athletes will follow her in taking the plunge.

“That is just the first step,” Al Bedwawi said.

“The UAE has been progressive in many different fields and now it’s the time for sports to shine. Now we need to reflect the UAE’s beauty and success with gold medals.”

Whatever Al Bedwawi goes on to achieve in the pool, she has already more than done her bit for her country. One particular moment above all others, naturally.

“The highlight was definitely carrying the flag and delivering a powerful message regarding youth, women and female swimming in the UAE.”

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