Little Lamia to inspire Emirati girls to be gymnasts
She's paving the way for women in sport in the region, using rhythmic gymnastics.
Mahavir Singh Phogat, an Indian amateur wrestler, defied a conservative world, to teach his two daughters a sport meant for men. Hailing from Balali, a small village in Haryana, where, back in the day, women were considered to be fit only to do household chores, their only aim in life to become a housewife, Geeta and Babita broke the rules and broke free.
They underwent rigorous training under their father's tutelage and later went on to win medals for the country. The Phogats have inspired many that came after them and their real life story went on to be told in the Bollywood film Dangal.
And here in the UAE, we have Emirati girl Lamia Tariq Malallah. Lamia's mother, Malak Tariq Alfarsi and former world and European champion Ksenia Dzhalaganiya are stirring a revolution, so to speak, in the hope that more Emirati women will take to the sport of rhythmic gymnastics.
Their dream is for Emirati women to represent the UAE on the world stage and win medals for the country.
All of five years old, cute little Lamia is already on that road and is a star in the making, having landed top honours in the inaugural Dubai International Junior Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship last December. There are more competitions to come for Lamia, including a 14-day training camp in Russia at the end of March. Ever since she took to rhythmic gymnastics like a fish takes to water, Lamia has been juggling school as well as 20 hours of intense training every week.
Lamia trains at the Dubai Youth Olympic School, an exclusive rhythmic gymnastics school set up by Ksenia. And Malak Tariq Alfarsi and her husband Tariq Ali, a former football player with Al Shabab, have shown an open mind and enrolled their daughter despite having to deal with a conservative mindset around them. Malak hopes this first step will pave the way for more girls to come.
"There was some opposition towards me for encouraging Lamia into sports. But, Alhamdullilah, my husband and I are on the same page. My husband and I say she needs to do sport, she needs to represent her country," says Malak.
For Ksenia, who coached the Singapore team for four years before moving to Dubai because of her husband, felt deeply that UAE could have its own rhythmic gymnastics team one day.
"The idea was to have a high performance programme that the girls are being trained for overseas competitions, to represent the team, to represent the country," Ksenia says.
"So, we are very selective with the girls. Before we select anyone, they have to come through a trial and we see if the girl is qualified for professional level gymnastics. I can see her figure, her posture, look at the parents, we look at the parents physiques, how the girls will be in the future, we check their flexibility, check their ability to jump up and down and be light at the same time, be active and follow instructions. There are many criteria," adds Ksenia, who started the school in May last year.
Around 300 girls had come for selection and only 35 made the cut.
And Ksenia says she has been lucky that Lamia's parents have been quite supportive.
"Lamia's example is very unique. She is from an Emirati family and they are extremely supportive. They are pushing their child to train as much as she can," Ksenia says proudly.
It still hasn't been easy considering that the sport involves "slightly intriguing costumes" as Ksenia says but she adds that they have adapted and worked around it, keeping in mind the culture.
"We are very respectful of the girls and we don't allow any male in the sports hall, only female coaches. The girls are fully covered with their long sleeves and long leggings in a way that it won't affect their performance," she adds.
Malak says that mindsets have changed. "We, as parents, are the new Emirati generation. Our parents come from an old culture. They talk about hijab, not wearing sleeveless. They talk about costumes when you have competitions and you wear leotards, it shows your leg. But we say, now you have the skinny leggings, the tights, and there are children who participate with the hijab nowadays. It is all in the mindset of how and what will work. For us, it is important that children learn a sport," says Malak.
Ksenia hopes Lamia's example will open more doors.
"I think we can't convince other parents by talking but by good example. When they see examples like Lamia right now - she's opening doors for others. I hope she will be an inspiration for others," says Ksenia, who won gold at the 2002 World Championship in New Orleans, USA.
"We do hope to set up a team of Emirati girls. It would be amazing if UAE girls represent the country," she adds.
Lamia's dream is to meet His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. "She says 'I want to meet Sheikh Mohammed, I want to go to the Olympics, I want to win the gold'," says Malak.
And Ksenia wants to accomplish an unfulfilled dream. She was forced to retire before the 2004 Olympics due to a leg injury. "I don't regret not going to the Olympics but maybe one day, I can take one of my girls to the Olympics. That's my biggest dream," signs off Ksenia.
James lives and breathes sports. When the fancy strikes, he can churn out some memorable local stories
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