Emirati teenager Layla Al-Khatib hopes to make a splash at FINA World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi

Sun, 2021-08-15 13:26

When 18-year-old Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui stormed to an unexpected win in the Men’s 400m freestyle at Tokyo 2020, Emirati teenager Layla Al-Khatib will have been taking notes, slowly plotting her own path to success.

And she may not have to wait too long to realise her dreams.

The 15-year-old will soon be up against some of the world’s best short distance swimmers in the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m), taking place on December 16-21 at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi.

“It was an amazing feeling, I couldn’t believe it at first,” Al-Khatib said on getting the call. “I’m just really grateful for this fantastic opportunity and hugely excited to be representing the UAE at such a big event. I’m so excited to be involved and the fact the competition is taking place in Abu Dhabi makes it even more special. I was born here, and I’ve trained here for such a long time that I can’t wait to compete for the UAE in the capital city.”

A love of swimming had always run in her family and the youngster didn’t take much convincing to take the jump into the pool.

“I started in the sport because my mum was a swimmer and I pretty much fell in love with it after a few sessions,” she said.

It was fitting that it was her mother that broke the news to her that she had been chosen by the UAE Swimming Federation to represent the country in December.

“I was at home with my whole family when my mom received the news,” said Al-Khatib, who has yet to confirm the races she will take part in. “I instantly saw her face and knew it was good news. Little did I know, it wasn’t just good news, but news that the goal I’ve been working towards for so long had finally come to life.”

The swimmer has come a long way since she started competing in junior events at the age of eight. By the time she was 11, she was competing in international tournaments, such as the Jordanian Nationals, Arab Championships and Asian Cup.

At only 15, she will be hoping to make her mark in front of her home crowd at the Etihad Arena on Yas, where she will be joined by 18-year-old Youssef Al-Matrooshi, who represented the UAE at the Olympics.

“It’s a huge achievement and one I’m really proud of,” Al-Khatib said. “As a swimmer, I train regularly to be able to compete at the highest possible level and being selected to perform at the FINA World Swimming Championships is a huge moment for me. Now, I’m fully focused on training well and preparing for the event in the most effective way because when it comes around in December, I want to show what I’m capable of.”

Al-Khatib is aware that swimming is not one of the more popular sports in the UAE or Middle East and is happy to play a part in raising the sport’s profile.

“I feel like this is an important event in terms of inspiring the next generation,” she said. “Obviously, as a young female, it would be great if my performances can encourage other girls to develop a passion for the sport and try to achieve their goals, but the most important thing for anybody starting out is to enjoy it.”

Other Arab swimmers have in turn been an inspiration for Al-Khatib.

“I look up to Farida Osman (of Egypt) and Yusra Mardini (of Syria) who both represent their Arab countries very proudly,” she said. “They both came so far despite the struggles in each of their countries, especially Yusra Mardini. She swam for the refugee Olympic team and I just think it’s amazing because of how far she’s come. Her strength and perseverance should be an inspiration to all.”

Al-Khatib’s career highlight to date came at the 2019 Arab Championships when she won three gold medals and one silver. The achievement gave her the belief that she could compete at other major events such as the FINA World Swimming Championships (25m).

The tournament could be a game changer for swimming in the UAE, she said.

“I think it will have a huge impact on swimming in this country, and the Arab world in general,” Al-Khatib said. “This will be the first time Abu Dhabi has hosted the event, and even though it was previously held in Dubai, that was over 10 years ago. This is a great opportunity to put UAE swimming on the map and I’m really proud to be involved and playing a part.”

Having watched Arab swimmers make waves at the recent Tokyo Olympics, Al-Khatib will now have her own chance to take on some of the world’s best.

“It will be very special,” she said. “The Etihad Arena is an amazing venue and I will be competing against the best short-course swimmers in the world, so naturally I’m really looking forward to it. Having the country supporting me will mean a lot and I want to perform well, not just for myself, but for them as well. The event is still a few months away so for now it’s all about training and preparation because I want to win.”

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