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UAE women shooters aim for Paralympic glory: ‘Nothing is impossible’

Image: The National

Two Emirati Women Shooters Set Sights on Paralympic Glory

When two Emirati women shooters aim for success at the Paralympic Games in Paris, they send a powerful message of how sport can transform lives. Ayesha Al Mehairi and Ayesha Al Shamsi are among the few UAE athletes to qualify for the competition, which starts on August 28.

The determined duo seeks to lead by example, showing that there should be no barriers to pursuing your dreams. The sound of shots echoes through the indoor shooting range of the Dubai Club for People of Determination, where the athletes train rigorously.

 Inspiration and Determination

“Shooting is not only a game; it’s in my blood. It gave me a chance,” said Ayesha Al Mehairi, who is competing in her second Paralympic Games after Tokyo 2021. “Our challenge is the target, but shooting also makes me happy.”

She is part of a UAE team that will compete with more than 4,000 athletes from around the world. The disciplines include para powerlifting, athletics, shooting, wheelchair basketball, and cycling in venues beneath the Eiffel Tower and at the Versailles Palace park.

The sporting journey of the two UAE women shooters exemplifies how the games aim to change perceptions about people with disabilities.

Setting Goals and Achieving Dreams

Inside the Dubai shooting range, Ms. Al Mehairi uses her right arm and chin to guide the rifle, keeping it steady by resting her chin on a wooden niche. The air rifle competition tests skill and accuracy, with competitors aiming to place a series of shots close to the center of a target.

Ms. Al Mehairi has won several local and international medals, particularly proud of her first international gold in the 2022 Para Shooting World Cup in France. Diagnosed with polio as a child, which impaired movement in her arms and legs, she never let it stop her from pushing limits and trying different sports.

She played boccia, a game where players throw or kick the ball to land near a target, before shifting to shooting. “I found myself in shooting,” she said. “You need to be quiet. It’s me and the target; no need for other players.”

In addition to being an athlete, Ms. Al Mehairi is also a chef and runs a restaurant serving traditional Emirati cuisine in Dubai’s Al Quoz area. “I know I’m special. I like winning medals,” she said. “This is my second Paralympics. I hope to be in the top eight of the competition. You have to list your goals and the steps to reach them.”

Overcoming Challenges

It will be the first time at the Paralympic Games for Emirati shooter Ayesha Al Shamsi. For Ms. Al Shamsi, switching from boccia to shooting was key. The 40-year-old Emirati has Tetra-Amelia syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by the absence of all four limbs.

Ms. Al Shamsi recalls the disbelief when she decided to take up shooting, as she does not have shoulders or arms to rest the rifle. But she never let her condition stop her and constantly learned from watching overseas athletes compete.

Working with her coach, she first learned to pull the trigger with her mouth. After much experimentation, she now tugs a cord attached to her toe to release the trigger. At the training center, an assistant straps her into a specially-built wider chair and tucks the rifle under her chin.

“I shoot with my foot, not my arm,” said Ms. Al Shamsi, deftly handling the rifle with her mouth. “Many people in the Gulf say, ‘no arm, how do you play?’ In Europe, I see people with no arms shoot, no problem. I want every person who has no hands to see how I play. I want Arab people to see me. They can shoot, do archery, do everything.”

She listens to Beethoven to relax, practices yoga to meditate, and wants to show that anyone can take up a sport, regardless of their disability. “I tell people – don’t say, ‘I cannot,'" she said. “You can do everything.”

Ms. Al Shamsi also enjoys painting with watercolors and playing video games. Despite her strong performance in international competitions, she feels nervous about her Paralympic debut. “This game needs calm and focus. I will go to Paris, be calm, sit alone, relax, listen to classical music, close my eyes, and breathe deeply.”

Encouragement and Support

This never-die spirit is encouraged by coach Mohammad Hussein. “Shooting is very accurate; your mind and rifle must be like a computer,” said Mr. Hussein, who is also the Dubai Police shooting coach. “You have to know the rifle well.”

Understanding how to tailor the equipment to fit each athlete’s special needs is a key part of his job. After lengthy research, he devised the trigger and stand for Ms. Al Shamsi’s rifle. “Nothing is impossible,” he said. “When I started with Ayesha Al Shamsi, I asked myself, ‘How can I teach her when she cannot hold a rifle?’ Step-by-step, we made it work.”

The UAE team won three medals in Tokyo 2021, seven medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and three medals in the London 2012 Paralympics. However, Mr. Hussein is against pressuring athletes to win medals. “When my player enters the Paralympics, I feel that is the gold medal,” he said. “If you ask for a medal from your shooter, you give them pressure. I tell them not to forget their training. I want them to enjoy, get their normal score or do better, and then they will be number one.”

The Paris games run until September 8 and will showcase 22 individual and team sports.

July 8, 2024 10:08 a.m. 619

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