Zahra Lari: the Emirati ice skater with Olympic ambitions

A hobby that started with some ice skating lessons at Zayed Sports City soon turned into something much more serious for Zahra Lari. Now, she trains 20 hours a week on the ice and 10 hours a week off it. Adam Szreter speaks to the Emirati on her ambitions to become the first-ever UAE athlete to compete at the Winter Olympic Games

The World Figure Skating Championships currently taking place in Helsinki, Finland, will be of particular interest to one spectator in the UAE. But by this time next year, national champion Zahra Lari is hoping the whole country will have seen her become the first athlete from the UAE to take part in the Winter Olympic Games.

Lari took up ice skating 10 years ago, at the age of 12. After watching the film Ice Princess, a name she has now inherited from her admirers, she went along to try out at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi. “I fell in love with it immediately,” she explained to Vision Sport from Innsbruck, Austria, where she was competing. “Since I was a kid I’ve always liked ballet and gymnastics, plus I thought doing a winter sport in a desert country was very unique and different.”

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Lari is the first international skater to compete wearing a hijab

Her first taste of competition was a small event in Dubai in 2007, which she won, and her first international competition was in Italy in 2012. Her best results are winning two years in a row in Hungary in an interpretative category, and then in Iceland last year. She has also been the national champion three years in a row, but is equally proud of some of her achievements off the ice.

“I’ve already won many wonderful awards,” she said. “Most recently I won at the inaugural Young Arab Awards, which is a really nice thing. I’m also very pleased to have helped the UAE to get permanent membership of the International Skating Union last year, the first country from the Middle East to get it.”

Lari, whose father is Emirati and mother – who is also her manager – American, became the first international skater to compete wearing a hijab. “When I started skating you’d get deductions for being covered,” she said. “They had never seen skaters covered before. But after several meetings it’s now in the rule book that anyone who is covered won’t get deductions.”

Lari, who last month competed with some of the world’s best skaters at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, is also becoming something of a role model for women in the UAE. The sports brand Nike has also asked her to take part in a new regional campaign to inspire Arab women to join the world of sport.

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Lari began ice skating at the age of 12

“The biggest challenge for ice skating in the UAE is getting people to understand it,” she said. “In the past, international sports men and women were expected to return to the UAE with a medal, but getting people to understand that finishing 18th out of 24 at the Asian Winter Games is actually a big accomplishment.”

The World Championships in Finland will be just too soon for Lari to qualify, but she achieved personal best scores on her 22nd birthday in Innsbruck last month for both free skating and the short programme. In September she will take part in the Olympic qualifying event in Oberstdorf, Germany, where she hopes her results will be enough to carry her all the way to PyeongChang 2018.

“In the summer I’m going to be training really hard, travelling to different countries, so hopefully by September I can get my programmes ready and qualify,” she said. “It would mean so much because no one from the UAE has ever qualified for the Winter Olympics. It would be a huge accomplishment and an honour for me to raise the UAE flag there.”