Through the Barrier and Across the Line

This is the story of a young athlete, affectionately known as Oozy, from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and how she broke through some cultural barriers to achieve her dream of competing in a long distance triathlon.

In 2015, I met a local cyclist in Dubai.  She was slight, small, and understated.  She was riding with the Velo Vixens and joined a weekly social ride with me at the old Nad Al Sheba track.

She was a young multiple time medallist for the UAE fencing team and competed in the Dubai World Championships in May 2017. Disappointedly, the UAE National team were way behind the other competitors and did not pass the groups stage.  This was a culminating point for Asma as she felt like she could progress better in triathlon than fencing as the sport offered much more potential for her to win.

Asma’s amazing journey in fencing was the stepping stone into finding courage to become more exposed and find a way to participate in an outdoor triathlon, in a mixed gender environment.

Whilst her efforts in the sport of fencing were not unnoticed, she felt that she could achieve more as a triathlete and there would be more future for her as an athlete. In the UAE triathlon community, there was more encouragement for women to grow and succeed.

She joined the newly formed Urban Ultra Women’s Cycling League in Team Souplesse, and began her racing journey.  As she rode more, her sporting friends encouraged her to enter a Duathlon where she finished on the podium in first please.

She came to me on the 10th October 2017, and asked me to be her triathlon coach.  I was recently qualified and was honoured at the prospect.  The reason why I give the date, is because it was also a turning point for me in my triathlon coaching career and it’s a date I will never forget.  I received a little message through facebook, while short in its content had a large message between the lines.

By way of background, Asma comes from the United Arab Emirates, a GCC country with conservative Arabic traditions. Her family is a traditional Emirati family with a respectable heritage hailing from the Bastikiya area of Dubai. 

Whilst growing up she participated in different sports, always with the family’s permission and always wearing traditional clothing.  She never really liked running or the thought of swimming.  Her swimming experience was only as child with her siblings at the recreational pool.

In addition to training for any of her sports, Asma needed to keep the balance between long work hours and her family time.  In order to fit her training in around her work, she had to be out of the house for more than 12 hours a day almost every day, leaving before sunrise and coming back as late as 9 o clock at night.  I would receive photos from the end of her training, exhausted but happy, and sometimes with a message of endearment.

She loves me really!

However, these long hours spent outside of the home is something that can be deemed unacceptable by an Emirati family and also the Emirati society. It is a challenge to wake up at 4:00am to leave home for a race, without a chaperone, and other people criticized Asma’s own family for allowing a young girl to leave the house so early. This put additional pressure on her family and despite external disapproval, they continued to support her journey against all odds. In saying that, it took Asma one year to win their full support and confidence that what she was doing was only going to make them proud.

From the outset, Asma was very passionate about triathlon yet also very hesitant due to the many trials to face, the foremost being a suitable outfit especially for a fully covered (hijabi) young woman.  Also, she is a very respectful person to her culture and values.  Triathlon was not really appropriate “behaviour” and we had to find a way around it.

Knowing that Asma was highly competitive and liked to excel at everything she did (she plays tennis rather well too), we spent the best part of the winter doing strength training, cycling and running. We met up at the beach on very windy and dreary mornings, in sandstorms, high winds and shamals.  Asma braved out the Dubai winter weather and rode tirelessly on her bike, learning how to cope with wind.  We swam in the sea, towing a swim buoy, trying to overcome fears of the open water.  Only a few weeks later, she entered her first triathlon at the Dubai Ladies Club having just learned to front crawl!  Given her newfound running ability as well, she realized that she had huge promise as a triathlete.  The underlying problem with this particular triathlon though, was the swim.  She was actually terrified of the open water, and not comfortable swimming around people, with a huge aquaphobia.  She completely tensed up and swam like a wind-up toy across the ladies’ club bay.

We knew we had some work to do, and continued to meet up every Tuesday morning for an early sea swims, starting in the shallows and eventually breaking out into the open water. Asma went to pool swim classes with Urban Swim to improve her technique.

Participating in triathlon is often linked to bling bikes and lots of tight lycra, unforgiving to the body shape.  Asma had to go through several trials to find tri kit that would suit her traditional requirements and also her personal preference of being loosely covered. She experimented with different outfits, I believe she has 20 pairs of jogging pants alone!  Most of them were not efficient and cost her several podium places due to a very slow transition time in between disciplines due to sartorial difficulties.

Local triathlete Nuha Luqman from Abu Dhabi took the initiative to design a full-length tri-suit which provided more modesty however Asma still wore extra layers over it so as not to outline her. We tried different things across many races to find the most effective outfit where she would not have to change in transition and could race the whole distance with the same outfit or only have small changes to make after the swim discipline.

One year and three months later, Asma finished her first Ironman 70.3 in Dubai.  For those who are unfamiliar with this race, it is a “half-distance triathlon” where the athlete swims 1.9 kilometres, cycles 90 kilometres, and then finishes off with a 21 kilometre run.  The Ironman 70.3 attracted over 2500 participants, but only two of them were Emirati women.  This is a huge win for Asma, her nation and society.  It might not seem significant for most of you reading this but for her it is breaking a lot of social barriers to show that women can achieve in sport while respecting their family, traditions and culture.

She was unbelievably calm on race day.  I was waiting on the beach for her to finish her setup in transition, in floods of tears.  It was a big day for me too.   Just over one year of coaching experience in triathlon and there were many questions in my head.  I’ve coached for years in other sports, freediving, scuba diving, and also short distance triathlons, but this was my first long distance triathlon client.  It involved potentially anywhere between six to eight solid hours of racing, depending on how it goes on the day.

Did I judge her training correctly?  Have I taken care to ensure that she is fully competent, not just in each discipline but in combining all of these in one day?  Have I given her enough emotional support, encouragement and does she know how much I believe in her capability?  I had an overload of thoughts and then I remembered words of my own previous coaches, and what I have learned from them, in particular, Trace Rogers.  She always said “how much does your race mean to you”?  This meant putting in the right training before a race, not deviating to do something extraordinary which could injure an athlete and set them back.

Asma’s training plan was right.  She followed her plan precisely, except when she was ill.  We didn’t try to make up for lost training, we just continued.  We took the vitamins and supplements, focused on recovery, foam rolling, brick sessions and the long arduous four-hour rides, finishing tired and emotional.  There were many messages from her questioning her sanity which I think is normal, especially for a first-timer at this distance.

The ocean (in my eyes) was perfect on the day.  There was a small swell, but nothing like the previous year.  Asma was ready.  She had done the distance in training and in worse conditions.  We walked to the Jumeirah beach hotel along with co-triathlete Natalie Liot, chatted and laughed nervously. I stood on the beach like a Tri-Mom, holding up bags while the girls got into their wetsuits and piling all their dry kit into a big bag, and tried to look relaxed while the inside of me was eating away at me.

Swim start Ironman 70.3 Dubai

They disappeared into a sea of red swimming caps, and I trundled back to the bike transition exit, watching her on the Ironman tracker and could see swimmers coming in to shore. The cut-off time was 1:10 minutes.  The time was 1:02 and I was beside myself with worry.  I was not worried for her safety, but the emotional rollercoaster we would have to ride if for some reason she didn’t complete the swim within the allocated time.

The tracker bleeped and she was in transitional, getting ready for her bike.  I knew then, that the rest of the race was in the bag.  She would be battling a small headwind all the way to the midpoint of the bike course, and we had worked on those tweaks in her cycling technique to help her to get through that.  The major concern would be the run in the unforgiving Dubai heat which we expected not to be a much of challenge given her excellent running ability, but actually was where she struggled the most due to all the layers she was wearing.  I cycled after her a few times on my mountain bike during the run to cheer her on like an annoying parent.  The spectators cheered for her, the aid stations covered her in iced water and the other athletes gave her so many fist bumps and high fives it was impossible not to cry again!

We waited for her at the finish line to give her the UAE national flag and her facial expression was astonishing.  I’ve never seen such a happy athlete, still full of power and energy.  She said “I am just so grateful and thankful to be surrounded with amazing people that supported all the way, and always believed in me words can’t describe how happy i am about the way things turned out.”

Finished proud!

Humble is one of the words I would use to describe Asma.  She considers herself as just a normal girl with no special talent and abilities, and just wants to show the world that whoever you are, wherever you come from or whatever it takes “YOU CAN!”

Asma says:

  • Just forget the excuses. 
  • It takes failure to reach success
  • It takes patience to grow stronger 
  • It takes tears to smile later 
  • It takes stubbornness to hit your goal
  • You don’t have to break your values or violate your culture to do what you love to do.

Today, Asma is as an ambassador of her sport to her culture, and an ambassador of her culture in my sport.

Keep your eye out for this girl, and see what comes next in her grand future as a female Arab triathlete.