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.
Sometimes the person you have to stand up to is you! There I was, rewatching the Miss Universe 2019 competition. Which I do for inspiration from time to time. (No, seriously!) There is something about seeing women on stage, in full-on glam mode, and speaking with confident assuredness that really lights my fire!
I have seen this Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa win this crown so many times before, but something about this particular viewing, her delivery or her words, touched something inside me a little differently. At that moment, I truly believed, with complete conviction, that she lives what she speaks.
The announcement was made, the audience cheered, and the crown was awarded. The light was dazzling,, she looked stunning, almost blessed. The judges made the right call with 2019's queen.
Reflecting On Myself
Suddenly, the YouTube video ended. And I was left looking at a black screen. In the darkness of that screen, I saw my reflection and I began assessing what I saw, asking myself, "What have I been doing with my life?" It may seem like an overly dramatic question, but at that moment, I had to ask myself seriously… What have you done? The fact that I couldn't come up with a solid, confident answer gave my inner-cynic license to quickly spiral into self-criticism.
This went on for quite some time, until I got up. I stood up and walked to my mirror to have some serious one-on-one "Queen Talk." I needed to get out of that self-critical mindset, and I know that physical movement is something that help disrupt a way of thinking. I needed to remind myself of who I really was. The negative feelings I was experiencing at that moment were not reality.
Here are a few reminders for whenever you need some Queen Talk!
1.) Comparison is truly the thief of joy.
This saying feels like a cliché. That is, until it's applicable to you. At that moment, this "cliché, becomes self-evident. Comparing myself to someone on a stage with years of experience in an area I know nothing about is not only unfair but straight-up mean. A part of my comparison comes from me wondering, "Would I have the ability, if put in that position, to perform at such a level?" The answer is totally and without question, yes. I excel in the field I work in now, and I know that if I put that same energy towards something else, with practice, I could do just as well. No joy can come from comparing yourself to someone in a completely different field!
2.) Never forget the blessings that have been bestowed upon you.
Every single day, I am blessed to have the opportunity to wake up with all ten fingers and toes and choose to create the kind of life I want to live. There is so much power in that alone, but sometimes it's easy to take it for granted. Let us not forget those who are unable to make that same decision every day of their lives.
3.) Appreciate how far you have come!
I've been very intentional for some time to be kinder and gentler to myself. I need to realize that I am human. Being human means that I will not know everything, and I will continue to make mistakes.But I must let go of the need to always be right. I feel empowered when I can see the growth that I've made, regardless of the mistakes that may come in the future. I don't react to every little thing that bothers me, because I have learned boundaries when it comes to dealing with others and myself. I truly value my time and my energy, and, for that, I am proud.
4.) You Can Be Who You Want To Be
If you can see it in your mind, you can achieve it in reality. I saw myself when I looked at the women on stage, when she smiled, the way she talked, her elegant walk. For a moment, in my self-criticism spiral, I forgot that we are all connected. Debasish Mridha has said "I may not know you, but I don't see any difference between you and me. I see myself in you; we are one." I will not sit in the mentality of lack, there is more than enough opportunity and good fortune to go around for everyone. Her win was not a loss for me, but it can be a nudge from the universe for me to go ahead and dream big!
This Queen Talk was not easy. There may have been some tissues and tears involved but giving myself an honest yet compassionate talk is sometimes what I need to bring myself out of some bad head space. In these moments of doubt, you truly need to be your own best friend.When times get rough, criticism won't always come from outside sources. How you speak about yourself internally is crucial to how you see and feel about yourself. As Beyoncé once sang, "I've got Me, Myself, and I." We must put forth every effort to be there for ourselves. I look forward to more Queen Talks when some negative emotions arise. I am grateful for the person I am today, but I am excited to see the women I become.