How one young athlete with Olympic aspirations is thawing traditional norms by taking to the rink
Figure skating probably isn’t the first sport you’d associate with life in the desert, but local skater Zahra Lari is changing all that.
After falling for the sport in her teens, she is now one of the country’s rising stars, meaning that the UAE, for the first time, is in with a real chance of competing on an international stage. The skater even has her sights set on taking to the ice at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.
However, among the glitzy short skirts and leotards traditional to the sport, Zahra stands out in a couple of important ways.
For a start, she made headlines as the first skater in the world to grace the ice with her hair covered. She’s also the first ever female to represent the UAE in the sport.
Dubbed the ‘Ice Queen in a hijab’, the ambitious 20-year-old has already been picked up for sponsorship by Italian skate brand Edea, who provide blades for champion athletes across the globe.
She’s also been sponsored by the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy, and is helping pave the way for young girls to get involved in competitive sport.
Carving a path
Zahra’s journey to competitive level was not all smooth skating however.
After being inspired at age 11 by the movie Ice Princess, her father took her to the rink for the first time and she became hooked.
“Figure skating was the combination of everything I loved as a kid, like ballet and gymnastics. It looked so artistic and beautiful,” Zahra explains.
“In the movie, they made it look so easy,” she chuckles ruefully. “In reality, when I first got on the ice, I immediately fell over. And I kept falling for a long time after that.”
Despite a start that was more Bambi than Ice Princess, Zahra quickly picked it up and was soon being put forward to compete on an international level.
But her father wasn’t so keen.
“At the beginning, people didn’t know anything about skating and they had the wrong idea,” Zahra explains. “They thought it was not part of our culture.
“But when my father saw that it didn’t go against our traditions and that I was serious, I finally got to compete.
“There’s a reason why girls don’t get into sport here – it’s a cultural thing,” she adds. “You get married, you cook, you stay at home and raise your children. These days, girls want more. They don’t want to stay at home, they want to get out there, get an education and do something they love.
“It makes me proud to be part of making the road easier for the next generation. I struggled to make this happen, but it was worth it for them,” she smiles.“It’s really important for me to show that the hijab doesn’t restrict what I want to do.”
Life on an edge
From a young age, Zahra has had to make good on this promise and put her sport first, while a full night’s sleep, schoolwork and seeing family and friends sometimes came second.
If not seeing her family wasn’t enough of a sacrifice, the young athlete has to adhere to an extremely disciplined regimen with her diet, too.
“I have to stay focused on my goal. If I gain just one kilo, the whole timing and landing of my jump will be off.”
It certainly takes discipline. “Chocolate,” she half-laughs, half-sighs when we ask her what she misses. “I crave it every day.”
Despite the sacrifices, the young figure skater is quick to point out that giving up these creature comforts was a no-brainer when faced with the chance of achieving her dreams.
“Once I got back from my first competition, I knew I had an important decision to make.” she reflects. “It was never a hard choice. I knew I’d have to sacrifice a lot, but if I didn’t love it, I would have given it up a long time ago.”
Keeping her cool
For all the confidence she exudes, Zahra admits that the going has not always been easy. Injuries, nerves and competition losses have taken their toll at times, and Zahra is her own worst critic.
“It’s really hard to shake off a bad day. When you work so hard and then mess up, it’s devastating,” she says. “But I just tell myself: I can’t always be perfect. Instead of fixating on the bad, I look at what I can improve.”
When she’s on the ice, the motivation to keep going despite the bad days comes from Zahra’s dogged determination: “Every single day, I give it my all – that’s my mentality. When I finally nail that jump, it’s what keeps me going.”
With the help of a sports psychologist, the young athlete works through the lows and looks forward to the highs, including the possibility of competing in the Winter Olympics.
“I’m ready for the Olympics, but there’s still time to wait and I’m training hard for it. I’m confident I’ll qualify, but it all comes down to what happens on the day.”
But for now, the first step on the road to Pyeongchang 2018, will be competing for her country alongside 65 other hopefuls at the upcoming FBMA Cup from 22nd to 23rd January. There she’ll have a chance to win some points towards that Olympic dream.
“When I compete and I see the UAE flag raised, it’s next to the flags of countries that have been competing in this sport for a long time,” Zahra reflects. “The UAE is so young in comparison, and it’s a huge accomplishment to be a part of this sport. Just by being there, competing, I know my country is already proud of me.”