Rio 2016: Making waves on the biggest stage

The selection of Yaaqoub Al Saadi and Nada Al Bedwawi for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games is the latest key milestone for swimming in the UAE, says John Murray

Emirati swimmers just keep on making history.

In 2014, Ali Al Kaabi and Yaaqoub Al Saadi became the first-ever UAE swimmers to qualify for an international event, representing their country at the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games. A year later in Kazan, Nada Al Bedwawi and Alia Al Shamsi had the honour of being the first Emirati women to represent their country at the World Aquatics Championships.

Now, with the Rio 2016 Olympic Games about to get under way, Al Bedwawi is set to enter the record books once again when she becomes the nation’s first female Emirati swimmer at the Games.

Together with Al Saadi, Al Bedwawi was awarded a wildcard for Rio by the International Swimming Federation (FINA), following their participation at last year’s World Aquatics Championships. The 18-year-old will take part in the women’s 50m freestyle, alongside the likes of USA star Simone Manuel and Australia’s Campbell sisters, Cate and Bronte.

And if that isn’t a big enough thrill, Al Bedwawi also has the honour of being the UAE’s flag-bearer at Friday night’s Opening Ceremony. “It’s just amazing,” Al Bedwawi said. “I’m the first female swimmer and now I’m the flag-bearer too. It’s such an honour.”

Al Saadi, meanwhile, will compete in two events – the 100m and 200m backstroke. Olympic selection marks the culmination of a successful couple of years for Al Saadi, who won three gold medals at the 2015 GCC Swimming Championships in Dubai. And the 19-year-old, who swims for the Al Ain Club, cannot wait to represent his country in front of the watching world.

“I am proud to be part of the Olympics, as it is the world’s biggest sports event. I was very happy when I received the news, and so was my family,” he said. “Competing alongside world champions is a great source of motivation in itself, and this participation boosts my enthusiasm and motivates me to train hard and make an honourable performance against world champions. This participation will be part of my personal history.”

While a place on the podium may be out of Al Saadi’s reach at this early stage in his career, he is still targeting his best-ever performance in the pool, on the biggest sporting stage of all.

“My goal in the Olympics is to set a new Gulf record,” he revealed. “Although one always feels anxious when it comes to a first-ever participation, my motivation will help me overcome that anxiety.”

The participation of Al Saadi and Al Bedwawi at Rio is not just a huge boost to the swimmers themselves, but the sport as a whole in the UAE, and presents an opportunity to inspire a generation. It is also further evidence of how swimming is growing in the country, helped in no small part by the world-class facilities at Dubai’s Hamdan Sports Complex, which is used for training by the national team.

His Excellency Ahmed Al Falasi, President of the UAE Swimming Federation, is understandably excited about the prospect of two of the country’s brightest young sports stars appearing in Rio, explaining that their training has been going well.

“Their preparation programme is under way in cooperation between the UAE Swimming Federation and the National Olympic Committee,” he said. “Despite being on a tight schedule, both swimmers will be training regularly in the run-up to their trip. They are training to maintain their technical and physical fitness.”