Rio 2016: Olympian Nada Al Bedwawi hopes to inspire a generation

After making history in the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, the UAE swimmer reveals to our reporter in Rio, Michael Stoneman, how she hopes to encourage Emirati women to take up sport 

Having carried the flag of the United Arab Emirates into the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, there was a fair amount of expectation on the shoulders of Nada Al Bedwawi, as she prepared to become the first female swimmer to represent her country at the Olympic Games.

But the 19-year-old wasn’t letting the hopes of a nation weigh her down ahead of her Olympic debut; she was more concerned about what her friends and family were thinking.

“They were the ones who were really making me nervous,” she jokes. “They were all sending me messages saying, ‘Good luck, do your best’. But it was sometimes a little overwhelming!”

Drawn in heat one of the women’s 50m freestyle, Al Bedwawi ended up finishing third in a time of 33.42 seconds. And, while the NYU Abu Dhabi student – who only took up swimming three years ago – admits to feeling anxious in the days leading up to her Olympic debut, she was pleased with her performance.

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“It went well,” she says. “It was better than I was expecting, because I was nervous about a week before the race even started! I managed to let most of that negative energy out, so before the race I was ok. I realised that there was no pressure on me – no one was expecting me to qualify for the final or win a medal. All I had to do was swim my own race.”

While her time was not fast enough to progress to the next round, her performance in the pool still achieved one of Al Bedwawi’s main objectives here in Rio, which was to act as a role model for other women in the Middle East.

“It was such a great honour to be the first Emirati woman to take part in swimming at the Olympics,” she says. “My main goal was to break down barriers and to pave the way for other female swimmers. Sometimes people can be reluctant to start something new, but when they see that there is already a female swimmer who has been to the Olympics, hopefully they will be more encouraged to do it themselves.”

I really hope that now we can encourage more women to take part in sport, especially swimming. It's my dream to have enough women for a relay team!

Nada Al Bedwawi, Olympic swimmer

Al Bedwawi had already made history last year when, alongside Alia Al Shamsi, she became one of the first ever Emirati females to compete at a World Aquatics Championships. And now, having been the pioneer for female Emirati swimmers at the Olympics, Al Bedwawi hopes others will be able to join her at the next Games, in Tokyo in four years’ time.

“I really hope that now we can encourage more women to take part in sport, especially swimming,” she reveals. “Hopefully then we can come back in the next Olympics in 2020 or 2024 with a bigger team – maybe 10 or 20! It would be my dream to have enough swimmers for a relay team!”

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For now, however, Al Bedwawi is keen to return to training with a new motivation, having been inspired by competing alongside the best swimmers in the world, such as US superstar Katie Ledecky, who won four gold medals and one silver in Rio, while also setting new world records in the 400m and 800m freestyle.

“Just being here at the Olympics has made me realise why I took up swimming in the first place and it’s been really beneficial to me,” she says. “Mingling with all these world-class swimmers has given me something to aspire to. I’ve been too afraid to talk to them, but just watching them swim and train has motivated me. Especially seeing someone like Katie Ledecky. She’s the same age as me and she’s accomplished so much. I hope that one day maybe I can reach her level.”

While Al Bedwawi admits that watching Ledecky and co. has made her realise that it takes “a lot of sacrifices” to reach the top, she is happy to be seen as a pioneer helping to inspire more Emirati women to take up swimming – starting with her little sister, Nora.

“She’s only nine years old, but she’s definitely going to be way better than me,” she says.

Maybe that relay team in 2024 isn’t such a dream, after all.