Nada Al Bedwawi’s hands, when we meet, are wildly tapping away at a smartphone; manicured, slender fingers whirling across the screen like a dervish, like every other 18-year-old girl.
But there lies the catch: Nada is no regular Emirati teenager, and neither are her hands your average mitts. She is, to put an exemplary achievement simply, the UAE’s first female swimmer to make it to the Olympics and the youngest member of the 2016 UAE contingent – the country’s very own water baby.
As for her hands, make sure your bleary eyes find them on the TV screen tomorrow when you’re watching the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics in the wee hours of the morning – they’ll be the pair hoisting the UAE’s flag high, along with the country’s hopes and dreams of Olympic glory.
It’s a burden the willowy first-year biology student at New York University, Abu Dhabi, is honoured to shoulder. However, when I met her six weeks ago, she had no clue she was going to be leading the 13-athlete strong UAE team at Brazil’s Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro, to the tune of Ishi Biladi, the UAE’s national anthem.
At this moment in time, Nada is demurring any implied specialness, chalking down her success to efficient time management that helps her buoy an education and pursue swimming professionally.
‘It’s not hard if you just focus on your time management every day, dedicating slots to each activity and keeping some time aside to relax. Then anything is possible,’ she says.
Lean and lanky Yaqoob Al Saadi, her Emirati teammate and the second member of the two-man UAE Olympics swim team, flaps away her humble reply with, ‘She’s the best female swimmer in the UAE.
‘She’s also kind, friendly, spontaneous and focused on her goals. My youngest sister Reem swims, and I wish she grows up to be like Nada,’ says the 20-year-old fresh high school graduate.
Coming from Yaqoob – the GCC record holder for the 100m backstroke category, who can slice through the pool in less than a minute (59.33 seconds) – that is rich praise and far from perfunctory either.
All it takes is five minutes with the UAE national swim team’s three members – the Finnish UAE Coach Eetu Karvonen, Nada and Yaqoob – to know that this right here is a genuine team full of warm, unaffected camaraderie and contagious banter. In no time Friday’s studio, the venue for the interview and a photo shoot, was filled with easy laughter and relaxed conversation, a clear indicator that the bond between the three is quite strong.
‘I met Yaqoob for the first time last year when we participated at the Fina World Championships in Kazan, Russia,’ Nada says. ‘Almost instantly we got along as he’d encourage me to give my best all the time. Plus, he’s very funny. Most importantly he’s an amazing swimmer, which is why I’m so excited to have him as my teammate at the Olympics.’
DIFFERENT STROKES, SIMILAR PEOPLE
Although Nada and Yaqoob are competing in different events – Nada in 50m freestyle and Yaqoob in the 100m backstroke – they’ve dived right in and become best friends. Unspooling the story of their young lives, this makes sense, seeing how their fledgling careers have traversed similar paths from the initial dips in the pool as young children. While Nada discovered her love for swimming when she was just six, growing up in Dubai, Yaqoob fell in love with the sport when he was merely nine.
‘Until I was 12, I used to play a wide variety of sports, including football, basketball and tennis, but when I realised swimming was my true passion, I decided to focus on it and quit the other sports,’ Nada says. ‘However, I never thought of it professionally until four years ago when I was invited to join the national team as a freestyle swimmer.’
For Yaqoob the childish joy of splashing around in water developed into a serious passion only when his mantelpiece began filling up with medals and trophies. ‘Once I started to make a splash on the international swimming scene and bring fame to my country, I decided to give it my best,’ he says.
And his efforts have borne fruit. As the national record holder for the 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke events, Yaqoob has already started creating ripples, representing the UAE at the Arab Swimming Championships in 2015, and other international meets too.
The parallels between Nada and Yaqoob don’t end there. Both of them credit their parents for not only introducing them to the sport, but encouraging them to pursue it.
‘My father is a sports teacher at Al Ain’s Zayed University. He is not only my biggest supporter but my first coach as well,’ says Yaqoob, the eldest of seven siblings, all of whom are pursuing some sport. Nada, who is also the eldest among her siblings, pipes in: ‘In my case, my mother ensured I don’t lose focus or interest in swimming. My mum Dr Amal Al Mulla wanted to be a swimmer before medicine caught her eye. When she realised I was serious about the sport, she guided me through each and every step of the way, going with me to swim practices, keeping track of my progress and always listening to me, never forcing me to pick a certain sport or even go to practice.
‘It is this attitude that has made me fall in love with the sport even more. But my mother has never made me feel that I need to fulfil her aspirations.’
THE MOTHER OF ALL GAMES
The Olympics clearly isn’t either of the swimmers’ first rodeo, but it’s a terrifying bull all the same. Yaqoob and Nada, however, have decided to grab it by the horns and enjoy the thrilling ride, treating it as training ground to prepare for upcoming games and world championships.
‘At such events I always observe the other swimmers, their techniques, how they react in the water… and this has helped me gain more experience, work on my numbers and my techniques,’ Yaqoob says. ‘I’m also hoping to bump into my idol, American swimming great and 11-time medallist Ryan Lochte,’ he says.
Inching to the end of her seat, Nada says, ‘Initially I was training for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, but when the chance to go to Rio came of course I didn’t turn it down. Who would? I’m very excited to go.’
She clearly remembers her mother’s phone call informing her that she’s an Olympic entrant. ‘One moment I was sitting in my room studying for a geography test, next I was over the moon with the prospect of representing my country at the biggest sporting event ever. And the fact that I could be competing against my idol Egyptian swimmer Farida Osman will make this event even more memorable.’
‘In Yaqoob’s case,’ recounts coach Eetu, ‘he was training in a pool in Al Ain club when I showed up with the good news. Once I knew from the Federation, I drove to Al Ain, told him to prepare and checked the date of his last exam.
‘Yaqoob does not show his emotions very easily, so it’s hard to know when he’s very excited or depressed, and this is a good thing for a swimmer you know, to be calm. That day, he simply smiled. And then we trained.’
While the rest of the world expects Nada and Yaqoob to transform expectations into medals – and the duo are vying for Olympic glory too – coach Eetu is realistic about what they can achieve at Rio, and his grounded approach reins their youthful excitement from turning into overconfidence.
‘I try not to make these things too big a deal. They’ve each been selected from swimming camps that included 15 other top-level swimmers, so of course they’re here because they’re the best.’ Still, the UAE’s crème de la crème have room for improvement, and while experience might not be on their side, their young ages are.
‘We didn’t want to send people who’d stop after one win. The idea is they gain the experience, and inshallah by next Olympics, Yaqoob becomes a serious contender,’ says the brawny Finn, laughing as he sees Yaqoob rolling his eyes at his usage of an Arabic term.
It’s amusing, this easy rapport between two people who don’t speak each other’s language but navigate the verbal barrier through universal emotions of humour and body language.
‘Yaqoob understands most swimming vocabulary, so it’s easy practice. We can’t go through very complicated matters together but I also try to animate with my body and a whiteboard. I’m a very good artist now.’
Coaches, they say, can make or break athletes, and watching the 30-year-old Finnish National Champion and twice Masters World Record Holder interact with Nada and Yaqoob, it’s fair to say these young swimmers have a solid career shaping up. Add to the qualifications some dry Finnish sense of humour, and these swimmers have a winning personality.
Coaches are not the only world-class facilities Yaqoob and Nada have been bestowed with – from some of the best indoor pools in the world such as the one in Hamdan Sports Complex, to a club system of training, to Speedo’s hi-tech fast kit gear that reduces the water’s drag force, giving that added advantage. The swimwear giants are also sponsoring the athletes.
‘As an athlete here in the UAE you actually have the ability to pursue swimming professionally because the swimming federation provides you with the resources,’ says coach Eetu. ‘It would not be possible in many other countries, because of which athletes tend to quit the sport much before they realise their potential – unless they are really very good and figure in the top 1 per cent. Nada and Yaqoob are fortunate as they have a support system that encourages them to explore their talent fully.’
With great facilities come great expectations that bog these young swimmers down, with risk of a burnout.
Mind you, a quick run through their training schedules shows Nada and Yaqoob are no slouches when it comes to hard work. They guilelessly describe 5/6am wake-up calls, gruelling body weight training to build endurance, hundreds of laps in the pool to fine-tune technique, early morning runs, gym sessions and interval training packed into a 24-hour day. Of which 10 hours during term time is dedicated to school and homework.
Ambition and drive apart, it’s the conscientiousness of these Olympians that strikes home how young they are. They nod in disbelief when asked if teachers cut them slack with assignments and exams. ‘Not unless there’s a championship looming,’ pipes up Yaqoob. Nada mumbles how many at NYU don’t know she’s an Olympic swimmer.
There are times when they both feel overly stressed and begin to wonder whether it’s all worth it. ‘It is human nature, I guess,’ says Nada, who not only has to deal with the pressure of the sport but from the fact that she belongs to a gender that has not found easy acceptance when it comes to pursuing a career in sports.
‘There have been times when I have been faced with certain conservative people who have raised objection to my choices, but not any more,’ she says.
‘Thanks to Shaikha Maitha Bint Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who led the country in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there is a certain shift in perception. More and more women are embracing sports and are doing well at it,’ she says with gleaming pride.
Yaqoob, who is an ocean of calm and composure, has his stormy moments dealing with it all. ‘Sometimes I’m so under pressure between living life and training and how hard it all is… That’s when I talk to my sister Reem and then I feel OK. She’s a swimmer so she gets it.’
CHAMPIONS FOR CHANGE
Dressed in baggy Speedo sweatshirts, their fresh faces gleaming under the lights and their slender poised physiques now coiled into gangly uncertainty, giggling as they stand in the studio facing the camera, these whip-smart kids allow me snapshots into their dreams – Yaqoob wants to be an Olympic gold medal totting policeman – and the changes they want to represent.
Nada feels ardently about the academic-centric approach of schools. ‘There is this common belief that sciences are the way to success, but I don’t think so. I believe a well-rounded individual is the way to success. And that means other fields such as arts and sports should be implemented in high school.
The region’s football fanaticism needs to extend to other sports, Yaqoob stresses. ‘That all my friends are football fans and I swam set me apart, and it was a little bad because I don’t like football. Don’t tell the Al Ain club I said so!
‘But I support them emotionally, I do.’
Coach Eetu agrees. ‘If you go to the US, you have hundreds of thousands of genuine swimming fans who follow you and it’s important. You feel like a star and achieve something. Obviously we [in the UAE] don’t have swimming stars yet.’
Yet is the operative word here. Nada and Yaqoob might be striving to create tidal waves of enthusiasm for swimming in the nation with their strokes in the pool, but they’re sure already making a splash.