Last in line is 19-year-old biology student and the first ever female Emirati Olympic swimmer, Nada Al Bedwawi. Bedwawi is the youngest amongst the UAE team to be competing at the games and was given the huge honor of carrying the national flag at the opening ceremony.
Initially, Bedwawi was training towards qualifying to compete at Tokyo Olympics 2020, but her dream came sooner than expected when she was chosen as a wild card athlete to compete in Rio 2016.
How did you discover your passion for swimming?
Swimming has been a hobby of mine since I was 7 years old. As I grew older, I tried to get involved in other sports like football, tennis and horse back riding, but nothing stuck. No sport was able to surpass the emotional connection I have with swimming, I always found myself gravitating towards the pool and, unlike the other sports, I could never shake off the urge to jump back in the water.
When I finally realized that swimming was the only sport for me, I quit everything else and decided to pursue it on a competitive level.
What is your favorite thing about swimming?
Swimming makes me feel really happy, especially since it’s a sport that releases a lot of stress. When I swim I feel like I’m detached from the outside world and my everyday life. It’s a kind of escape from reality.
What is your proudest moment in your swimming journey?
Winning my first medal is definitely my proudest moment, because it was the beginning of this journey. I finished third at the Emirates Swimming World Cup 2013 in the 50-meter backstroke race.
That win really fueled my hunger to continue competing. It was the first time I ever felt the post-competition rush, which is a different kind of adrenaline. It’s that specific rush that drives my motivation for my next race. Without that first race, I wouldn’t be where I am now.
What made you decide to compete in the Olympics?
Back in 2015, I was selected along with six other swimmers to compete in the `World Aquatic Championships’ in Kazan, Russia. At the time I considered it to be a mini Olympics.
During the competition I got a chance to see and meet world-class swimmers and I knew then that my next big target would be to represent my country in the Olympics.
Luckily for me I was chosen as a wild card athlete to compete in Rio 2016, but I will be doing all I can to qualify through the normal route for Tokyo 2020.
How did you feel when you found out you were going to compete in Rio 2016?
It had never crossed my mind that I would be competing in Rio; my eyes were always set on Tokyo. I was in complete shock when I found out, especially since I was studying for an exam at the time, but I was definitely excited.
As the news simmered in, I got a bit nervous as I have not had as much time to prepare as other athletes as I was only recently selected to go to Rio. However, this just meant I had to train twice as hard to be up to par with the other Olympians.
More than anything, I am honored. Not only because I hold the title of the first female Emirati swimmer, but also because I was selected to be the UAE Olympic flag bearer. I think it’s one of the greatest honors any athlete can have at the Olympics, especially since I’m the youngest amongst the UAE team.
How do you think being chosen for this year’s Olympics impacted your goal towards Tokyo 2020?
Being able to compete this year allows me to have a better understanding of what the Olympics involves and what numbers are required to qualify and win a medal. Also, just being in an environment with liked minded people and mingling with world-class athletes is great form of motivation.
Prior to being chosen for this year’s game, I used to base my numbers and times on results I found on the Internet from previous Olympic swimmers. Now that I’m actually competing I will have first hand experience on what numbers I would need to win a medal.
I don’t want to just represent the UAE as the first Emirati female swimmer. I want to be the first Emirati swimmer to earn a medal, and being part of Rio 2016 is my stepping-stone to achieving this goal.
How does it feel to be the youngest to represent the UAE in the Olympics?
It feels great and exciting, especially considering the fact that the UAE is itself a very young country compared to the rest of the world.
I’m glad that I have the opportunity to break gender norms, especially as more women within the region are getting involved in sports on a professional level. As a female pioneer in swimming within the UAE, I hope that young girls and their parents would see me as an inspiration and proof that it is possible.
What is your training schedule like?
With the clock ticking to Rio, I train seven days a week, twice a day, once in the morning and again at night. In total it makes up around 3-4 hours of my day, if not more.
How do you stay motivated with all the pressure leading up to the Olympics?
I’m blessed to have such a supportive family that keeps me grounded and sane during hectic times. Another means of motivation is actually a technique I adapted, which is to motivate myself through visualizing success. Before jumping into the pool, I always imagine myself swimming towards the success of achieving my goals, and it really does work.
What’s your advice to female athletes who are aiming for the Olympics?
Never give up and keep doing what you’re doing. Whether it’s swimming or something else, if you’re passionate about a sport, pursue it with all you’ve got, because you never know where it might take you. When I first started out swimming professionally, roughly three years ago, I never would’ve expected that I would be chosen as a wild card to represent the UAE, let alone be my country’s flag bearer.