Going for gold

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Going  for  gold

Paralympic Thuraya Al Zaabi believed it was over when a stroke left her permanently paralysed — that was before she became a record-breaking medallist for the UAE’s Paralympic team on the international scene

By Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Fri 26 Apr 2013, 1:15 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 9:57 AM

Emirati national Thuraya Al Zaabi goes through the motions like clockwork, pulling on protective gear and strapping her left wrist to a specially adapted seat grip for support. A volunteer secures her left foot to the base of the chair that has been set up on the edge of the imposing race track at the Al Thiqah Club for Handicapped in Sharjah. After a few minutes’ warm-up, Thuraya is ready to go. Three discuses go spinning into the field, one after the other, each preceded by an almost karate-like cry as she lets them fly, each landing farther than the last. They’re almost symbolic of her life’s story over the last 14 years since the disabling stroke that left her completely paralysed on one side: of the drive that pushed her to return bigger, better, stronger.

Thuraya was 29 when she suffered the stroke. A mother of four, the youngest child was only seven months old when it happened. Up to that point, she’d been heavily involved in regional athletic, basketball and volleyball tournaments, coming out tops in most. The family sought treatment in Abu Dhabi where she underwent a major surgery — but, before that, doctors warned that proceeding meant Thuraya would either not survive or, if she did, she’d be entirely paralysed on one side. After the surgery, the former athlete was indeed paralysed on her left side and spent two weeks in the hospital’s ICU, “slipping in and of death” before being granted “a new lease of life by Allah.”

That new lease involved completing her physiotherapy — recovery was painfully slow for the first nine years before she started making breakthroughs — and taking up sports again. Without the use of her left eye, arm and leg, her former strengths were no longer options (“you need two hands, even if you want to take up wheelchair basketball or racing”). So Thuraya took to practising discus, javelin and shot put throws endlessly instead — to the point of becoming the first female 
Emirati to represent the country internationally at the Paralympics.

Nobody could have predicted her return to sports, least of all Thuraya. But she is now more than just a familiar face on the international Paralympics scene, having broken records twice and taken the gold for both javelin and discus throws at the 2010 Asian Para Games in Guangzhou. Unfortunately, she missed out on a podium finish at the London Paralympics last year due to “technical mistakes on the judges’ parts” — but 
intends to set the competitive record straight and replicate past successes at the upcoming Asian and World Cup games for Paralympics.

She sighs heavily at this point but brushes aside concerns that she’s tired after the earlier demonstration of discus, javelin and shot put throws. “It just feels like a dream,” she explains, nostalgically. “You cannot imagine what I was like five years back. I could not speak a word or walk; I was only bedridden. Now, with my stick, I can walk on my own. I can make parathas and chappatis with one hand,” she teases. “I have gone from 
immobility to representing my country internationally — tell me, how much can I praise God?” One has to take it as a mark of her gratitude that Thuraya’s conversation is peppered from start to finish with the Arabic expression ‘AlHamdulillah’ (translated, praise to Allah).

The mum-of-four follows a daily routine of looking after the house and her children’s needs till 2pm and then training at the club from 4-8pm. “My children are very supportive of what I do and are always urging me to give it my best,” she says, beaming. Visiting the club in the evening, you can hear the sounds of relentless training underway. Does that take its toll on her sometimes? “Training is so very difficult and there are many times when I’ve wanted to quit. But I didn’t break those records without strong training so I now invest more energy into bringing home the medal next time with an even better record.”

In her forties now, Thuraya says she will continue for as long as she can go on. “There is never any end to sports. I don’t know how much longer I can do this, but while I have strength I will continue to compete and bring honour for my country.” Nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it, she insists — and she’s walking proof. “In my first year of training, I could only throw a discus nine metres. In the UAE, that is good but outside, it is nothing. Now, I can throw it more than 14m. Life is difficult but if that’s the thought you keep in mind, you will never get through.”

Things were especially difficult for her after the stroke because she’d been a normal, able-bodied person all her life, she points out. “It’s one thing to be born handicapped but totally another to become disabled... Still, everything we get in life is for good and from above. So be sure of this and don’t break your heart [over difficult circumstances]. We have to make the best of what we have.”

(Do you know anyone who refuses to let his/her disability get in the way of their routines and dreams? Write to karen@khaleejtimes.com

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