Putting aside the turmoil in her country, Bahrain's Sara al Flaij competed as the sole woman representative of the Gulf at the FINA World Championships in Shanghai last week.
The 16 year old student from Manama took part in the 50m and 100m freestyle events of her world championship debut. It was her second successive major event, having also taken part in the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games.
Sara was keen to focus on sport at the worlds, although the protests in Bahrain disrupted her training schedule.
She said, “Yes, I did miss a few days of my training ahead of the Shanghai worlds. But I did not lose many training sessions. Moreover, these things do not matter much as I am happy to be representing my country at the world championship.”
Sara finished 75th out of the 77 competitors in the 100m with a time of one minute, 14.86 seconds. In the 50m, she clocked 33.98 to finish 76th out of 87. Her personal best in the 100m is 1:10.00 and 32.73 in the 50m. Despite failing to match these times in Shanghai, Sara was still pleased with her campaign.
“It feels great,” she said. “This is my debut and with the world's best swimmers present, it is a chance to meet and make friends with them. Watching the best swimmers perform is also a way to gain experience.
“During the races, I was a bit nervous as it was my maiden experience. My fellow competitors have been training for many years. I am just 16 and have a long way to go. I would like to go to the US for college and hope to continue representing my country, maybe at the top level.”
Sara counts American swimmer Dara Torres as her idol. The 12-time Olympic medallist competed until she was 41. She said, “Her determination teaches you that swimming is a lifetime sport. I also like Michael Phelps and would like to represent Bahrain at the Olympics.”
Under the guidance of coach Khalid Ahmed of Bahrain, Sara trains two hours every day. With support from her parents, she also feels comfortable balancing swimming with religious norms.
“First of all it’s a sport and I enjoy swimming,” said Sara. “It is an Olympic sport and I am proud to represent my country at the top level. There is nothing wrong in swimming as a sport for women and my parents have supported me throughout.”
Faisal Swar, chairman of the Bahrain Swimming Federation, also wants to separate the sport from politics and also promote the participation of women in swimming.
He said, “We consider swimming an important sport. We do not want to politicise the issue. All we want is to see the participation of men and women in swimming.”
Bahrain was the first Gulf nation to field a woman swimmer at the Olympics when 12 year old Fatema Gerashi competed at the Sydney Games in 2000.