Muscat: Oman’s first female Olympic swimmer has asked people in the country to always stay the course and never give up on their goals, no matter the odds they may face.
Speaking exclusively to Times of Oman on the occasion of the Sultanate’s 48th National Day, 16-year-old Lara Al Yafei, who became the first Omani woman to represent her country at an Olympic swimming event at the recently held 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, said she had many occasions on which to give up, but always found the mental strength to stay strong.
“I remember my first day when I was around 13 years old swimming for the national team,” she said. “My dad and I saw about 40 swimmers, and they were all guys, and they were all looking at me. This was only natural because this was the first time in history that a girl was going to swim for the national team, so it was unusual for them. My dad told me it was okay to give up and no one would look at me badly if I gave up now.
“You can give up, not go swimming, and then afterward, feel bad for yourself, or you can keep going, and just try to get to the other side and you will eventually be fine,” she added. “I went with the second option, and the message I have for girls is to keep going. Even if you don’t win the race, just the fact that you keep going is you owe it to yourself. Just keep going.
Lara recalled: “I was extremely proud to represent Oman and I remember my proudest moment. I was getting on to get ready for my race, and I was seeing the TV. This TV screen is presented to hundreds of thousands of people around the world and it had my name with the flag next to it. I was so proud and this is something I will never forget.”
Having begun to swim at the age of just five, Lara was always a very disciplined girl. Preparing for the Olympics, though, required her to take that up several notches.
“I was swimming since I was five years old, but three months before the Youth Olympics, I was super-disciplined. Usually, I am disciplined, but this was discipline to another level. I was swimming four to five hours a day, I was really tired, I did a lot of gym work, and I had no cheat days. Usually I have cheat days, but this time, I had no cheat days and I had to make sure I ate everything healthy, and I was also watching videos online about swimming and techniques and I was really focussed.
“I have to try and keep disciplined and organised, and I have learned techniques about keeping balanced,” added Lara. “So when I say discipline, I mean saying no to temptation, I mean saying no to hanging out with friends, saying no to junk food, saying no to social media, and organising my time well and making sure that everything is organised and ensuring that everything is how it’s supposed to be. I wake up very early in the morning and then I go swimming. It’s sometimes for one hour, sometimes for two, depending on what we are doing, and then gym work, some stretching, and then I go to school. My lunch is healthy – it consists of vegetables, carbs, protein and water.
However, Lara added that she would not have been where she was today without the support of her family and hopes that more youth will follow in her footsteps.
“My family is very supportive and I think they are very helpful as well,” she admitted. “They say academics come first and swimming comes second, even after becoming an Olympian. Academics is always very important in our family. I feel like when I was younger, I was missing out, but as I got older, I realised that swimming is also fun. I train at the national stadium, but I am the only girl training there. Hopefully, if they see me they think they can do that as well.
“I feel like there is a responsibility I have now, because I feel the next generation sort of look up to me now, a lot of girls have come to me and ask me how I went to the youth Olympics and say that want to be like me,” added Lara. “I get asked a lot of questions and it is really nice because I feel the need to help them. It’s super cool because I love helping them and it is really nice. There’s actually a banner up on my school and I was really thankful for that. Everyone is super nice and they are all supportive.”
“I am very honoured and I am so happy that I have the privilege to represent Oman,” added Lara. “I would like to thank the Oman Olympic Association and the Oman Swimming Association for this, and from the other side, I am hopeful that one day, there will be more girls than guys on the Omani national swim team.”