(Cover Photo Courtesy of Nike)

This Emirati Figure Skater Is Shattering Every Glass Ceiling Imaginable


Zahra Lari has garnered a lot of attention in recent weeks because of her new campaign with Nike following the release of their first ever 'pro-hijab'.

Lari is a 22 year old figure skater from the United Arab Emirates, and while this might seem far fetched - there are ice rinks in the middle of the desert, and she has taken full advantage of the amenities. She is the first professional figure skater for the UAE, representing them internationally, and has her sights currently set on qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Lari first made headlines when she became the first international figure skater to wear a hijab while competing. Religion being as conservative as it is the middle-east means that she and her family would face a lot of strife coming up, Zahra having made the decision to compete in a sport that is based on display and show, in tight sports gear. Defying the odds and pressure female athletes in the middle-east have to endure compared to their western counterparts, Lari is as impressive a role model as they come. SWAAY spoke to her about life as a pro-figure skater in the UAE and how it differs from the regular life a woman in the UAE.

How did you get into figure skating?

When I was 12, I watched a skating movie called "Ice Princess" and after watching it I fell in love with the sport. A few days later I started taking lessons.

Tell us a little about figure skating in the UAE?

When I first started skating it wasn't a popular sport, in fact people barely knew what it was, since it's a winter sport and we're in a desert country. Ever since I've been in the media and giving speeches to kids in schools it's starting to pick up. Every year the numbers are increasing and we have a lot of young talented Emirati skaters.

How did your parents react when you wanted to figure skate?

At first my mom was against it because she said that I must focus on my education since I was an honor roll student. She was also concerned that I would get injured. Since she said 'no', I went to my dad and asked him. Fortunately, he agreed and took me the next day to start lessons. My mom then became very supportive and has always been there, even at 4:30am practices! Once I started getting serious, my dad then started saying that I was getting older and should stop competing. I listened to him and didn't compete. When he realized how devastated I was, that there was really nothing wrong with me doing a sport and that I am being healthy, he relented and accepted. Now I am so lucky to have all of my family being very supportive.

What were the challenges you faced as a woman figure skating?

The biggest challenge was educating people about the sport. Everyone considered it dancing and not a sport, so I had to change their way of thinking about it.

What are the barriers of entry to the sport in the UAE?

The biggest barrier is that figure skating as a sport does not have a yearly budget to run. I am very lucky to have the Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies sports academy's support and sponsorship. For the sport to grow and for other UAE nationals to compete internationally we need the financial support and a budget set for figure skating on a national level.

What was your training schedule like - were you along in your ambition to become internationally competitive?

The first 3 years I was only doing once a week 30 min lesson but I was still improving so fast that my coach said she needs more. So during school I was going before school to practice at 4:30am until 7am then go to school and be back on ice at 3pm until 6pm. A lot of people thought I was crazy but I'm very passionate and determined about figure skating. At the moment my training schedule defers from week to week and if I have competitions coming up or not and with my university schedule but I'm training 4 hours a day everyday and I also do gym at Adrenagy.

Was there much access to ice rinks?

I'm so thankful and blessed that my country is providing us with great facilities and good conditions to skate on. The only problem we face is ice time since we have public sessions and hockey running as well.

Figure skating is a sport that requires a fitted, figure hugging outfit - was there ever an issue with this at home?

I faced a lot of criticism about my outfits. I don't wear tights but I wear pants with my costumes. I try to make people aware that the only reason my costumes are fitted is so I don't harm myself during my skating. With all the movements, jumps, and tricks that we have to do, it's dangerous to have baggy clothes.

How does it it feel potentially being the first person to represent your country there?

It will make me so proud to be able to be the first person ever to represent my country in a Winter Olympics and to be able to raise the UAE flag.

Tell us a little about your aspirations to go to the Winter Olympics in 2018?

Every athletes dream is to go to the Olympics. I train hard everyday to be better than I was the day before and I realize that everyday we are getting closer and closer to the Olympics. If I don't make it to the 2018 Olympics I will go to the 2022. That is my goal and promise to myself.

How does your training / college life balance work?

I am fortunate that Abu Dhabi University is supportive and understanding of my journey. I have to skip a semester every year when it's competition season because of a lot of traveling and that unfortunately will make me finish university a bit later but it's worth it.

What are you studying?

Environmental health and safety.

Figure Skating is a uniquely artistic sport. Can you tell us a little about your performance philosophy?

Every performance I do has a story behind it; for example, my free skate this year was about refugees. When I have a story it's easier for me to connect to the performance and portray the character

What's been the reaction of people in your country?

At the beginning they didn't know what it was so I got a lot of questioning but now everyone is very supportive of what I do and they all believe in me. Of course I get some criticism but I don't pay attention to that.

How did the sponsorship with Nike arise - when did they approach you?

Since I started skating it was always my dream to be sponsored by Nike, so when they approached me I was so excited, happy and shocked that they chose me! It was an honor for me to be part of the "what will they say about you" campaign and also part of the Nike pro hijab.

"I'm very proud to be part of this journey and be a member of the Nike family." -Zahra

What is the shared value of the partnership?

We all want to show women that yes you can do a sport and yes you can be great at it. Never let anyone tell you that you can't. Just do it :)

What is your motto to live by?

My motto is: There will always be people not understanding you, people doubting you, people not believing in you; just trust yourself, have confidence and prove them wrong.

What would you say to aspiring female figure skaters in the UAE?

Work hard, give it 100% everyday, never give up and most important thing is to have fun.

3 Min Read

7 Must-have Tips to Keep You Healthy and Fit for the Unpredictable COVID Future

With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.

When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.

Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan

Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.

Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.

The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.

Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits

The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.

With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.

Tip 3: Start slow and strong

If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.

Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.

Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize

In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.

When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.

Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness

From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.

Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.

Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.

A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.

Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition

In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.

If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health

While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.

For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.

While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.