Spearheading success

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  • Thurayya Hamad Ahmad Al Zaabi at 45 trains daily at the Al Thiqah Club for the Handicapped in Sharjah

No, she’s not from Krypton. She’s an ordinary superwoman without the cape. Thurayya Hamad Ahmad Al Zaabi is the first female Emirati athlete to participate at the Paralympic Games, at Beijing in 2008. With an innocent smile, confidence in her eyes and hopes that her experience will pay off in gold, she tells Yasmeen Maqbool of her passion for life and the sport.

“Yes I can do it. Yes I can get the number (that I’m aiming for),” says Thurayya to herself whenever on the field or at the competing line, while launching a javelin, or hurling a shot put or throwing a discus.

She was an active sportswoman until she suffered a stroke at the age of 29 that paralysed her left side permanently. Since her early school days Thurayya had been a basketball and volleyball player, and a cyclist, but today is confined to a wheelchair.

It took seven months before she could start speaking again and a year to regain her sense of balance. She could not sit and needed to be strapped up with a belt to protect her from falling. It indeed had become essentially impossible for her to perform everyday activities such as dressing, eating, grabbing objects, or using the bathroom. She scribbled on paper to express herself and did not succumb to self-pity or doubt that she will ever be able to “stand-up” again. She recalls, “My challenges stood before me, but I knew that I had to win over them.” With three elder children and a seven-month baby on one hand and a partial paralysis on the other, her challenges were many.

But Thurayya fought, resting all her faith in the Almighty and the belief – Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (in Arabic) a part of a verse from the Qur’an which translates to ‘We surely belong to Allah and to Him we shall return’. “My faith was my antibiotic,” asserts Thuryya.

And then began months of rigorous physiotherapy with a belief that “Allah will return to me, what he has taken from me, if it is mine to keep” that brought Thurayya upright again. Her faith in the undying spirit of a sportsperson kept her persistent and consistent in her battle against fate, not forgetting the continued family support that backed her.

“It was very hard for me at that time, but as I recovered I thought it was best to think positively and get on with my life.”

Seeing medals won by special-needs athletes during a physiotherapy session inspired Thurayya to train for the Paralympics.

“I told the coach, ‘I need you to put me with them. I need to win medals’,” she medals,” she recalls. “And I didn’t stop my life, because my heart didn’t stop believing – my heart wanted to continue sports.”

After spending years in rehabilitation, Thuraya became the first Emirati athlete to participate at the Paralympic Games, at Beijing in 2008. And then came the gold medals. In 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, she bagged the first position in the javelin and shot put.

At 45 today, the country’s most experienced female athlete trains daily at the Al Thiqah Club for the Handicapped in Sharjah for the Olympic Games in Brazil next year. “I’m ready to do my best for the UAE in Brazil,” she says, while working out at the club while securely strapped into a chair, in accordance with Paralympics rules, during training.

Thurayya requires a walking stick and wheelchair to get around but restricted mobility over the past 16 years has not dented her spirit.

And as this edition goes to print, Thurayya is battling for a position and doing the rounds in Russia and then Qatar to qualify for the Olympics next year.

She has the backing of the Al Thiqah Club for the Handicapped in Sharjah, the UAE Disabled Sports Federation and her family, who are her most passionate supporters.

“When I get medals my children collect newspapers, magazines and tell people, ‘My mother is a champion’.”

Being a mother of four it is not easy to leave her children to train abroad and go for competitions. But that’s the choice she has made for herself. She definitely leads by example and her condition hasn’t stopped her from meeting the challenges in life.

The Paralympian’s advice to disabled athletes is simply to work hard. “My wish is to be an ambassador of my country at international events – to present the good image of the Emirati girl, smiling, successful and loving,” Thurayya hopes.

She believes she has a better understanding of life than what she had before she was confined to the wheelchair. “I appreciate, love and do things that I wouldn’t have done as a normal person.”

“God has given me more strength to face the world and I live by that. Be they colours, fantasies, happiness or contentment – none of these emotions affected me earlier. But now if you go into my heart, you will clap your hands for me because when I throw, inside I’m shouting loudly ‘Yes, I can do this’.”

Photograph by: Sarfaraz Ali Photography