Ice princess in a hijab

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Her dream took over her entire being. At the young age of 11, she knew she wanted to skate on ice and make it her life. The Emirati professional figure skater Zahra Fadhel Lari aims to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, South Korea. She tells Yasmeen Maqbool why it’s important for her to be a part of the Olympics and what it’s like to be a Muslim, covered figure skater

“You fall often but the challenge is to not give up, get back on your feet and try again. And even if someone tells you that you can’t do it, don’t pay heed to it. Just follow your dreams, go after it and work hard. Your dreams will have to come true,” believes the 20-year-old dreamer.

Zahra believes she is living in a fairytale. Inspired to take up figure skating as a hobby after watching the 2005 movie ‘Ice Princess’, she has since gone on to compete on the international stage for the UAE after it became a member of the International Skating Union (ISU). Her hobby has since turned into an obsession. Beginning with just an hour’s lesson a week on Thursday’s eight years ago, today Zahra practices about 5-6 hours each day for six days a week.

When she first started skating, she never dreamt that she could achieve this level in skating that she now stands at.

Her original plan was to just learn how to master basic skating. It is only by natural progression that the sport chose her. Fond of gymnastics and ballet, eventually her love for figure skating grew, and today she continues on to learn the various technically complicated spins or jumps.

“Like any other sport, it is most enjoyable when you reach at the goal you have marked for yourself. That is the most rewarding feeling. However it gets most challenging when on some days 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 harder then. I know that when I fall I must get right back up and try again and again until I get it.”

“I want to qualify and participate in the Olympics because I want to prove that not only can a covered Muslim woman, but also someone coming from the desert, can participate in a winter sport.

She added: “The thing that keeps me going is the thrill of landing that one jump. You may have been working on it for such a long time and kept falling and falling, but one fine day you get it. And when you get it – the thrill and the feeling is something special.”

From watching figure skating on the big screen to having Olympic ambitions, she is now the source of inspiration for other young Emirati girls wanting to get involved in the sport.

The most challenging aspect for Zahra was convincing her dad to allow her to continue skating as she got older. “It was a challenge but over time he understood my passion for the sport and now he is my biggest supporter and fan.”

I feel honoured to have the support of Her Highness Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, Mother of UAE and Her Highness Sheikha Fatima Bint Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Through the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy initiatives and the UAE Ice Sports Federation we have been able to host an International Figure Skating Competition this year in Abu Dhabi and plan to host the second FBMA Trophy International competition in January. It is an amazing achievement for this sport to be progressing at an admirable rate and be impressed and supported by the international community.

Though having faced criticism Zahra has decided that as long her family and country support her, that is all that matters to her.

“My inspiration has been Julia Lipnitskaia. Though being the youngest skater at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, she won the team event. I’ve learnt from her that your passion for the sport helps you overcome yours fears and competitive skating results.”

Zahra’s schedule varies from day to day. “I have three new coaches this year. One is the French Olympian Yannick Bonheur, the second is German National Champion Annette Dytrt and the third is Australian Emilia Ahsan. They coach me at various times during the day depending on my university schedule (She is studying Environmental health and safety at the Abu Dhabi University). On an average, I will train on ice 5-6 hours and 1-2 hours off ice each day for six days a week. I usually will have Friday off as a rest day.”

When asked what kind of music does she like while skating, Zahra replies honestly, “I actually like calm music when I’m just casually skating, but more strong, powerful and fierce music when I’m competing.” And she reasons this difference in choice of music based on her mood. “When casually skating, I’m very calm and relaxed, but during competitions I’m usually very stressed and nervous.”

And above everything else, being on ice with her skates on is surreal to her. The felt of the cool air breezing past her as she skates calms and soothes her even if she’s had a bad day. She smiles: “The ice is such a big part of my life that I cannot imagine being without it.”