Meet the first female Emirati cyclist to qualify for 2024 Paris Olympics

Safiya Al Sayegh opens up about the importance of family support in the development of young Emirati sportswomen


Rituraj Borkakoty

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Safiya Al Sayegh, the Emirati trailblazer. — Supplied photos
Safiya Al Sayegh, the Emirati trailblazer. — Supplied photos

Published: Tue 28 May 2024, 7:38 PM

Last updated: Wed 29 May 2024, 1:40 PM

On a November morning last year, Safiya Al Sayegh wasn’t expecting any surprises when she was driving back to Dubai after attending an awards ceremony at Abu Dhabi. Having already represented the UAE at the World Cycling Championships, the 22-year-old was content with how her career was progressing as a professional rider.

She was still behind the wheel when her phone rang. It was the president of the UAE Cycling Federation calling her to break the news that she had qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games (July 26-August 11).

“It was a very emotional moment. Me and my mum, we both were in tears in the car. Then my father called me over the phone and he was so happy,” Safiya recalled.

Safiya Al Sayegh all set for the 2024 Paris Olympics
Safiya Al Sayegh all set for the 2024 Paris Olympics

No wonder there were tears of joy for Safiya who had just made history by becoming the first Emirati female cyclist to qualify for the Olympics.

Safiya, who rides for UAE Team ADQ, the professional women’s road racing team, also completed her graduation in graphic designing from the University of Dubai early this month.

In an exclusive interview with the City Times, the rising star opened up about balancing her cycling career and studies and the importance of family support in the development of young Emirati sportswomen. Excerpts from the interview:

You were into sports from a very young age, you played different sports before you fell in love with cycling. Did you always find a sporting environment in your family?

I come from a sporting household, I am very blessed to have an ex-professional footballer in the family which is my father (Mukhtar Al Sayegh). My father played for the UAE in the Youth World Cup. So being a sportsman, he supported me, but he was also a bit worried about my academics, my grades. But I convinced him that I can manage both sports and school. I actually realized that sports help you focus better on anything you do in life, it improves your concentration level. That’s what happened with me, my grades improved and I was doing good in sports too. So I was very happy that I could show him I could do both.

In a recent panel discussion, you said your youngest sister had no clue about Olympics when you made it to the Paris Games. But now probably more young girls in the country would be curious to know about Olympics and how to become an Olympian in future. You have got a beautiful opportunity to become a trendsetter…

It’s a big responsibility because people would be following your every step, they can be critical of it, they can be supportive of it. You have both sides, but then the support keeps you going. It’s incredible to be able to set a mark and I hope more girls would be inspired to follow in my footsteps. Even if they don’t become elite athletes, I hope that more girls would be more active in their lives, so they follow their passion, they can chase their dreams in life. Sometimes, as women, we tend to criticise ourselves more, we doubt ourselves, and I actually have doubted myself for many years, I am really trying to learn how to actually motivate myself before people motivate me because there have been moments when people have trusted me more than I have trusted my abilities. So what I actually like to promote among women is following your passion, chasing your dreams and believing in your abilities.

You have already proven your ability as a road cyclist. But it’s going to be a gruelling 158-km road race at the Paris Games. What’s your goal?

The goal is definitely to complete the race. It’s going to be a very brutal race and I haven’t done as many races as other riders I will be competing with in Paris. But being there with them is an achievement for me. I don’t want to stop at that because I want to represent the UAE the best way possible.

Safia Al Sayegh, centre, during the Tour Down Under Women 2024
Safia Al Sayegh, centre, during the Tour Down Under Women 2024

It was your mother who played the biggest role in your career. She even convinced your father to give you the opportunity to become a professional athlete. We have also spoken to a few other young Emirati sportswomen and all of them say it’s their mothers who encouraged them to take up sports. It speaks volumes of the forward-thinking generation of mothers in this country…

It's definitely a blessing to get that support. It’s beautiful to see so many other girls in the country also receive the support from their families. It shows that more and more mothers are pushing their daughters to chase their dreams, to become more active. Probably that’s the reason we are now seeing an increase in the number of professional female athletes in the country. Definitely, the society we come from, there are drawbacks, but even with drawbacks we should keep pushing. I like to promote the passion (for sports) so much that even if you have setbacks, when you have people who don’t believe in you, you can always find a way to achieve the dream of yours. And most of the time, you will see people who are following you now were actually the same people who were not supporting you in the beginning. So, yes, on one hand, you have very supportive families, and on the other, you have families that are not so supportive. But having a family that supports is an aid and a push to fly and grow.

You have spoken about your family. But are there any athletes whose stories have inspired you to push the boundaries?

I used to be a swimmer in school, so I was a big Michael Phelps fan. I read a lot of his interviews. What I learned from him is that it’s not easy to reach the top, but it’s even harder to stay there. You need to maintain your performance because your opponents are always trying to improve and beat you. His story is an inspiration to stay committed to your sport and work hard on your game every single day. Yousuf Mirza is the other big inspiration in my life He is the first professional Emirati cyclist, he actually made me dream of becoming a professional. He made it to the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016 which was my first year as a cyclist for the UAE national team. So, him qualifying for the Olympics in the same year inspired me to dream of Olympics. Today I am very happy and proud that I have been able to make that dream come true. Then Marta Bastianelli is my female role model. She used to be a rider in our professional team, UAE Team ADQ. She achieved everything, she also won the World Championships (in 2007). Then after becoming a mother (in 2014), she won the European Championships and the Italian Championships. It was so inspiring to see that she was still winning after giving birth to her daughter. She was competing at top level until she retired last year. So she is a big inspiration in the sense that even if you are a woman and you do aspire to have a family, you can still come back to sport and excel. It was blessing for me to be her teammate for a couple of years and to get inspired by her journey.


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