Al Shamsi, who trains at Al Wasl Club, is specialised in the 50m and 100m breaststroke but will be making her national team debut today in the 50m backstroke at the HSC.
“I won’t put pressure on myself in terms of clocking a certain time, I just want to do my best,” she insists.
“It will be a big day for me, my name will go down in history as the first Emirati female swimmer to represent the country and I want to enjoy it. There are lots of very strong girls in the championship, and they are much older, more experienced and faster than me. I’m aware of that.
“But this is a start for me. I dream of qualifying to the Olympics, that’s a long-term goal of mine.”
Al Shamsi’s coach Mohamed El Zanaty is hoping more girls can follow in her footsteps and join team UAE. He’s unsure of the reaction locals will have towards Al Shamsi’s debut but feels it is a necessary step to move the sport forward here.
“She’s the first local swimmer in the history of UAE swimming. This is huge,” said El Zanaty.
“We are trying to open the door for other women to join us. We’ve been training her for two and a half months and we are trying to get support for her to continue, and for more to follow suit. We’re waiting to see the reaction from the public when she swims tomorrow but so far so good.”
No female has ever competed under the UAE flag in any swimming competition and Al Shamsi, 15, is well aware she is breaking new ground, in a region where tradition and religion have prevented many like her from taking up the sport.
“I’m really happy to be the first Emirati to represent the UAE, it’s a huge honour for me,” Al Shamsi said. “It’s a big responsibility, and I hope I don’t disappoint.
“I think it’s a very nice thing, breaking new ground like that, and I believe that I’m doing something that is very important.
“I hope it encourages other girls to join me because I dream of having a full Emirati team of girls representing the country. We have a healthy men’s squad but on the women’s side, it’s just me. If we have a team, then we can really start competing against other countries.”
Al Shamsi has been swimming for the past six years but has only previously competed for Repton School in school meets. She got selected by the UAE national team and has been training with them for the past two months. Her brother Abdulla, who is a year younger than her, also trains with the national squad and she says her family are very supportive of her swimming.
“I really found myself in swimming,” she explains. “I tried horseback riding, and skiing, but I fell in love with swimming. My parents are really supportive of me, especially my dad, even though I am the only girl in the family. He really encourages me.”
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Alia Al Shamsi has set herself a goal knowing fully well it will be five years before she achieves it. Given her age you'd think that the Standard VII Repton School student would be better off being a normal schoolgirl doing what other Emirati girls her age do.
But then, she's already veered off the beaten path and decided to wade in unchartered waters as she aims to become the first woman to represent the UAE in swimming and that too at the 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro!
It is a difficult choice she has made given the cultural issues associated with women's swimming here in the UAE, but her family is right behind her in her endeavour.
"It's a family choice that we have made. Of course there are hurdles and we are trying to overcome them. We are trying to convince the federation as well as trying to draw the government's attention to women's swimming," Alia's mother Kawther told XPRESS by the poolside at the GEMS Wellington International School. "We want her to be a torchbearer for Emirati women who want to take up this sport but step back because of the cultural issues involved," she added.
With such backing, it's no wonder Alia is confident of her progress. "I want to make swimming a big thing in the UAE. Of course, representing the UAE in Olympics will open a lot of doors for women here who want to swim," she said.
Alia and her nine-year-old brother Abdullah train at the Hamilton Aquatics club under coach Chris Tidey and he has high hopes from his wards.
"Despite starting late, Alia is technically good and possesses smooth, controlled strokes. Given the way she is developing, we aim to get her to the Rio Olympics in 2016 as a wildcard for one of the breaststroke events. It's heartening to see that even at her tender age Alia knows what she will be doing for Emirati women. As for Abdullah, his course is tougher, one because he is young and two, because there are other good Emirati men swimmers around," Tidey said.
Asked to name her swimming idol, and it doesn't come as a surprise that she mentions Swedish great Therese Alshammer.
"I met her during an event here in April and had private classes with her. She told me to work hard on my breaststroke. She definitely inspired me with her words," Alia said.
The UAE Swimming Federation says it is ready to train local athletes for competition and is looking to get more youngsters involved over the next four years.
There are four national race meetings exclusively for Emiratis and another six for all UAE residents.
Those in the sport say competition is vital for increasing swimmers’ performance and motivation, and more of it is needed.
Ayman Saad, executive director of the federation, said he expected the number of meetings to grow as the organisation attracted more participants.
“We have 300 swimmers from all age groups,” said Ayman Saad, executive director of the federation.
“We are now starting to get good numbers but to get more swimmers for all ages we need to work with the Minister of Education and schools to bring in more swimmers to the pools.
“In the next four years, we plan to get 3,000 swimmers.”
But some involved in the sport say young competitors in the UAE lack a proper system to carry them into international competition.
Coaches in Dubai say there is ample local talent and world-class facilities, but children are quitting sport in favour of studies and other pursuits.
“The UAE Swimming Federation has a system in place and are trying to change it to get the right training,” said Chris Tidey, managing director of Hamilton Aquatics.
“We are willing to help because children seem to be lost from the sport in their teenage years and prioritise their studies.
“It is about structure to get from 10 or 11 years old through to when they are 18 or 19. We need to ensure that there are long-term athlete development pathways that all nationalities can follow.”
Mr Tidey said development programmes were short-term, for locals and expatriates.
But Mr Saad insisted there was a plan in place.
“Of course we have a plan,” he said. “You have to understand our situation – we don’t have a lot of swimmers. That’s why we involve all the locals and foreigners in competitions and make it competitive.”
Obaid Al Jasmi, 31, who swam for the UAE in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, said the federation needed a short and a long-term plan.
“They should start on kids from the schools and work up from there,” Mr Al Jasmi said. “The School Olympics was just launched and we will see that swimming is the best sport in the games.
“The whole swimming community should be one family – the swimmers, coaches and media – and we will find the right champion.”
Velimir Stjepanovic, the UAE-born swimmer who came sixth for Serbia in the men’s 200-metre butterfly at this year’s London Olympics, said there was no excuse not to have world-class swimmers in the UAE.
“Obviously we could do with a few more 50-metre pools but at the end of the day we have what we need,” said Stjepanovic, 19.
“There are several training programmes in place with top coaches using world-class methods, but the desire to swim is a must.
“The child must want to do it. You can’t do something and not enjoy it and find the training is hard. It needs desire and determination.”
Mr Tidey said the right training and good technique at a young age would produce a greater pool of swimmers with international potential.
“With that as a foundation you’ll get more chance of children making it,” he said.
Alia Al Shamsi, 12, from Dubai, has been swimming for two years with Hamilton Aquatics but there is no national championships for women.
Her brother Abdullah, 10, is the UAE national champion in the 50-metre butterfly for his age group.
Alia, 12, said they both swim about seven and a half hours a week.
“We want to compete,” she said.
But Alia said having Stjepanovic poolside, occasionally giving tips, was an inspiration to her.
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