Determined Women: Meet The Sportswomen At The Special Olympics

BY Harper's BAZAAR Arabia / Mar 12 2019 / 21:57 PM

As Abu Dhabi and Dubai prepare to host the Special Olympics World Games, seven women who will be representing the UAE talk about what tolerance, hard work and winning mean to them

Determined Women: Meet The Sportswomen At The Special Olympics
Aasiya Jagadeesh

Chaica Al Qassimi has met Pope Francis, learned how to make a vegan Caesar salad and is a martial arts force to be reckoned with. Chosen to be the torchbearer when the Special Olympics World Games opens in Abu Dhabi this month, the 26-year-old judo referee speaks alongside 7,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities who will be coming to the Games. She describes what the UAE’s Year of Tolerance means to her, saying: “We can’t change who we are, but better to include us in every society,” she says. “And no discrimination.”

When athletes from 192 nations descend on Abu Dhabi for the Games, held from March 14-21, they will be accomplishing much of what the country stands for, says Aisha Abdulla Miran, Board Member of Special Olympics UAE team and Vice Chair of UAE Sports Federation for People of Determination. “We have witnessed incredible engagement from both the government and the private sector taking part in this legacy,” Aisha says. “The number of volunteers who wanted to leave their footprints on the success of this event is heartwarming. We have been receiving requests from many employees, students and visitors from various nationalities who consider this participation not only a pride, but also a civic duty”. The Special Olympics UAE Team wants to highlight in particular the role female athletes are playing, she says. “[They] have overcome any social and cultural challenges to prove to all that women in the UAE have equal rights to men, regardless of abilities, gender and nationality, and that cultural diversity enriches our society and adds to the unique value proposition we bring to the world.”

For those athletes who will be representing the UAE, the Games has brought a heightened sense of purpose to their lives. Lauren Joy is a trainer who, for the past four years, has been working with 24-year-old Mouza Al Hamed, who will be representing the UAE in the 100- and 200-metre sprint. “I think it’s absolutely brilliant what the Special Olympics is doing,” says Lauren. “It’s really changed Mouza’s life. She is so much happier and more confident.” As Clari Lehmkuhl, a South African athlete who will be playing tennis for the UAE, summarises, in the end tolerance is about “love and happiness.” Acceptance is key and boils down to a recognition that everyone is making an effort in their own unique way. “We are making the best of what we can do,” Clari concludes. With the Special Olympics World Games on the horizon, BAZAAR wishes the athletes the very best of luck.

28, Bowling, Emirati

For Mariam Al Hosani, tolerance means forgiveness. “Accepting each other. I forgive you, you forgive me,” she says. Competing in her first Special Olympics, Mariam will represent ZHO-Abu Dhabi Sports Club in bowling – individually and as part of a team. It’s a group of people from many different backgrounds who have formed tight bonds of friendship. Mariam is well-placed to participate, coming from a family of seven highly competitive siblings. The 28-year-old learned to bowl, and to play its variation, bocce ball, from her mother Zafarana. Mariam, who has Down Syndrome, loves to listen to music in her spare time – particularly the sounds of Emirati artist Hamad Al Ameri. The young Emirati is firmly focused on her participation in the Special Olympics World Games. “In my mind it’s just winning,” she says. “I want to win.”

22, Basketball, Emirati

Sherifa Al Yaqoubi’s mother Lina has noticed a big change in her daughter since she started playing basketball two years ago. Having a goal and being required to practice every day to achieve it – five training sessions a week, to be precise, as her team has geared up for the Special Olympics World Games – has proven a powerful motivator. While before Sherifa slept in, and was hard to rouse, she now wakes on her own as soon as sunlight pours in through the window. “She wakes up early, prepares herself and before the bus comes she is ready,” says Lina. In addition to basketball, where lately Sherifa has been working on passing – “It’s fun”, she says – she also has a part-time job in Bani Yas, packing vegetables that are sold in local supermarkets. There’s one key element to succeeding, whether you are a person of determination or not, “You work hard,” she says.

13, Football, Yemeni

Fatima Al Katheeri can’t wait to get on the football pitch. Playing defense and running – not to mention the special friends she has made – are her favourite parts of training for the Special Olympics World Games. “Every day she asks me ‘shall we go today or not’?” says her mother Manal. “She’s excited, she wants to come every day.” Over the past few months, while her daughter has been training for the event, Fatima has built a brand-new extra-curricular social circle, too. “She’s grown and she’s met new friends,” Manal says. “There were friends before, but at school, not outside school.” Fatima is fascinated by all the participants from other countries who will descend on the UAE to compete, she says, smiling: “I am excited and I want to get the gold medal.” As for stepping out onto the pitch this month, she says: “I don’t get nervous, but it’s really noisy and hectic.”

26, Judo Referee, Emirati

As the Special Olympics torchbearer, Chaica Al Qassimi knows she has an important role to play in communicating the message of tolerance. The 26-year-old, who will serve as a judo referee at the event, started practicing martial arts 11 years ago. “Judo is a martial art that actually helps people be stronger and more brave in their own skin,” she explains. “Judo is a martial art that empowers human being’s lives by learning how to defend themselves.” The sport has taught her the true meaning of determination. “We can do anything,” she says. “Cooking, languages, travelling – everything. Determination is being strong and brave in your own way.” Chaica’s role as torchbearer means she was also able to meet Pope Francis when he visited Abu Dhabi last month. “He said I was a good girl and he gave me a medallion,” Chaica smiles. “And then he gave me a blessing, too.”

24, Athletics, Emirati

The recent IX MENA Games in Abu Dhabi, where she won an impressive three medals, provided a preview of Mouza Al Hamed’s tenacious, competitive spirit. Strong, lean and fit from twice-daily workouts, including powerlifting, the 24-year-old is more than ready to take on the 100- and 200-metre sprints at the Special Olympics World Games. “I can push myself to win,” she says. “No inshallah!” There was a time in her teens, however, that Mouza wasn’t doing much of anything. Although she loved fitness as a child, she had gained weight and her mother Amal says she was spending most of her time sleeping and watching television. Slowly she started to get interested in exercising around the house. Then, while accompanying her mother to swimming lessons, she met trainer Lauren Joy and started working with her. Things didn’t go smoothly at first. “I basically just started off trying to get her to understand what exercise was,” says Lauren. “If anything got too tough, she’d just give up and walk off.” Fast forward four years and Mouza has “blossomed”, Lauren says. Not only has she shed the weight, but she’s adopted an entirely different outlook, with one focus: “I want to run so fast.”

12, Rhythmic Gymnastics, New Zealander

Ever since Ruby Hamilton was a little girl, she has loved to twirl ribbons. “To this day she calls it ‘ting ting’, where she solely concentrates for hours dangling a shoe, or anything that satisfies her senses in this way,” explains her mother, Stephanie. And so when the Special Olympics World Games reps got in touch last year, rhythmic gymnastics seemed a natural fit. Not only has it added an important activity to her life, but exposure to all the other inspiring athletes, too. “This is something amazing,” says her mom. “Her friends can say they did gymnastics and she can say ‘I did too’.” The training sessions brought with them another unexpected blessing for Ruby and her family. After noticing her daughter interact with other children with Down Syndrome during practice, Stephanie began to explore an autism diagnosis. Emerging research indicates that up to 30 per cent of children with Down Syndrome may also have autism. Knowing that Ruby is on the spectrum has made things easier, says Stephanie. “Now we know it’s not bad behaviour,” she says, “and we can actually help her”. Ruby – who comes alive with music, loves boy bands and has a great capacity to learn song lyrics – will also sing in the opening ceremony with an all-abilities choir called Ensemble. The hardest part of her thrice-weekly training sessions at FitRepublik in Dubai? “The coach,” jokes Ruby, who has just one response when asked if she wants to win a gold medal: “I will”.

28, Tennis, South African

In a way, Clari Lehmkuhl has been preparing for the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi since she was six years old. The only female singles tennis player to represent the UAE – she will also play mixed doubles – Clari was introduced to the sport by her late grandfather, with whom she shared a special bond. “Being chosen to represent the UAE is one of the biggest dreams I’ve wanted to do,” she says. In addition to her Special Olympics role, the 28-year-old has become the UAE’s only certified Zumba instructor with Down Syndrome. Whether it’s learning new Zumba moves or buckling down on the practice court with her coaches at Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi, Clari is the embodiment of determination. “I’m trying my best to overcome this so I can be a better athlete and be myself,” she says. Her motto? “Never give up.”

Photography: Aasiya Jagadeesh 

Lead: Clockwise from top left, the Special Olympics participants are: basketball player Sherifa Al Yaqoubi, tennis ace Clari Lehmkuhl, judo referee Chaica Al Qassimi, athletics pro Mouza Al Hamed, footballer Fatima Al Katheeri, bowling expert Mariam Al Hosani and rhythmic gymnast Ruby Hamilton

From the March 2019 issue of Harper's BAZAAR Arabia.

Press play to watch Harper's BAZAAR Arabia chat to Zahra Lari, the UAE's first female figure skater.