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Special Olympics welcomes record number of female athletes

By Wam

Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 will welcome a record number of female athletes to participate in the Games, which will kick off in less than 10 days.

Almost 40 percent of the athletes competing in the World Games will be women, with over 2,800 females due to take to the playing field. The announcement marks International Women’s Day 2019 on 8th March, 2019, an international awareness day that celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women across the globe.

Some 412 female athletes showcasing their sports skills to the world will be from the Middle East and North Africa, MENA, region. Of those, 55 are Unified Partners who are looking forward to playing side-by-side with their teammates of determination. There will be 154 female coaches from the MENA region who will also attend the Games.

The World Games will also play host to the first-ever female athletes from Saudi Arabia, with 14 of them due to land in the UAE in the next few days.

Of the 2,800 female athletes participating in the Games, several have truly inspiring stories. One of those is Khadija Zen Al Abdeen, from Mauritania, who will be going for gold in less than one week. Khadija is the first female table tennis player and first female Special Olympics Mauritania athlete sent to compete outside her home country in any Regional or World Games.

Josee Seguin, who is representing Special Olympics Canada, was previously told she would "always be in delicate health" but is now among a growing number of female powerlifters competing in Special Olympics. She can deadlift an impressive 295 pounds and bench-press 137.

Hamda Al Hosani, 29, will be representing the UAE on home soil at the Games. She loves running so much that she says her legs hurt when she is not on the track. Hamda has 16 Special Olympic medals to her name and participated in the IX MENA Games last year. Changing attitudes is what drives her, she says.

"In the Middle East, people look at intellectual disabilities as a bad thing, but I want to change that negative perception. I am a very active person; I do not like sitting still. That is why I love running. If I sit down for a long period of time, I feel like my legs are hurting because I just want to run," Hamda said while hoping that with her home country hosting the games, more UAE children and adults will be motivated to join the Special Olympics and find a sport they enjoy.

A number of high-profile women have also been using their position to help increase awareness of the Special Olympics movement and drive it forward. One of those women is Michelle Kwan, the most decorated figure skater in US history. Michelle Kwan’s skating accomplishments have earned her a place among the all-time greats of the sport. For over a decade, Kwan dominated the sport like no other skater in history, winning an unprecedented 43 championships, including five World Championships, nine US National Championships, and two Olympic medals. In 2010, Michelle was elected to the Board of Directors of Special Olympics International. Over the last nine years, she has worked tirelessly to spread awareness of athletes with intellectual disabilities and of the positive impact, Special Olympics can have for everyone involved.

Behind the scenes, a number of successful Emirati women continue to drive the Games and the Special Olympics movement forward. Females also make up more than half of the Local Organizing Committee’s staff (54 percent) – showcasing the importance of the role of women in the success of the Games.

Tala Al Ramahi, Chief Strategy Officer at Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019, says: "This year’s International Women’s Day is themed around balance and we could not pay better homage to this than by hosting a World Games with the highest number of female athletes to ever compete.

"These are the women who are going to inspire and change the world and I am looking forward to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them and showing the world that there are no ‘disabilities’ for athletes of determination – just sheer determination, talent, and skill."

A number of high-profile Emirati female athletes have also shown their support for the Special Olympics movement. Emirati Football Coach, Houriya Taheri, who was the first Arab female to receive a professional coaching license, is the current UAE Women’s National Football Team Coach and the Special Olympics UAE Female Football team Coach. Houriya has been an active ambassador for the World Games for over a year and is committed to creating more opportunities for female athletes of determination in sports.

Emirati figure skater, Zahra Lahri, is also an ambassador for the Games and has played a pivotal in changing perceptions of Arab women on a global stage. She is passionate about inclusion and believes that the leadership’s vision - coupled with the power of sport - will help create social change and shift perceptions of people of determination across the UAE and beyond. Back in 2012, she became the first Arab woman to figure skate before a professional international judging panel while wearing a headscarf. She was deducted points for a perceived outfit violation and proceeded to campaign for the rules to be changed and was subsequently allowed to wear her headscarf without fear of being marked down.

The UAE will welcome more than 7,500 athletes from over 190 nations for Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 between 14th and 21st March. They will compete in 24 officially sanctioned Olympic-style sports in what will be the first World Games to be held in the Middle East.