From the sand dunes of the Rub al Khali desert to the snow-capped peaks of the Dolomites in northern Italy, Emirati teen Zahra Lari made figure skating history this week.
The 17-year-old not only became the first figure skater from the Gulf to compete in an international competition but the first to do so wearing the hijab, an Islamic headscarf.
“In my country women don’t do much sport and even less figure skating,” the quietly-spoken teenager told AFP after competing alongside skaters from 50 countries in the European Cup.
A practising Muslim, her black headscarf and sober costume, stood out among the flashy orange tutus and fluorescent pink tights.
“I skate with the hijab, my costume is in line with Islamic tradition,” she explained.
“The other girls are very nice to me. I think they accept me very well. I haven’t had any problems, people are open. It’s not a question of an exhibition, but of sport and my father is in agreement.”
Lari’s American-born mother Roquiya Cochran admitted that it had taken some time to convince her husband to let their daughter compete.
“I had to convince him. In the beginning he saw it as his daughter dancing in front of a male audience
“But he came along to watch, he saw how beautiful she was on the ice, and he loves her, he wants her to be happy. She’s covered, she hasn’t done anything anti-Islamic.”
Lari explains that her love of the ice began when she watched a Disney movie at the age of 11.
“I watched The Ice Princess over a 100 times, I loved it! I said to myself ‘That’s what I want to do’.”
Three years later she realised her dream when she pulled on her first pair of skates at the Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi where she met her coach Noemi Bedo.
“Promising skaters usually start aged 3 or 4 years,” explains Romanian Bedo.
“But she’s very talented, she’s very powerful and jumps higher than the others. I also believe in the Olympic Games,” added Bedo, of Lari’s dream of competing at the Winter Olympics.
The European Cup in Canazei does not have the stature of the ISU Grand Prix events and Lari did not compete at the world junior championships last February, but she nevertheless finished in the top 15.
“This has been an incredible learning experience and I am happy to have been able to show what I have learnt in the last few years,” she said.
“I may not have the competition experience that the other skaters have but I feel that I held my own and look forward to participating in future competitions.”
“For Sochi (2014 Winter Games) I’m giving 100 percent, I can do it. Otherwise I’ll try for the 2018 Games,” she said.
She certainly has the determination, getting up six days a week at 4:30 to practice before her day begins at the American International School.
“I’m on the ice until 7:30 and at 16:00 I’m back skating for an hour and a half. It’s not difficult, I love that, and I want to succeed.”
Apart from wanting her own success, Lari added: “I want to encourage girls from the Emirates and the Gulf to achieve their dream too and not to let anyone tell them not to do sport, not only figure skating but all sports.”