Qatar's lone woman rower defying expectations
Qatar's sole female Olympic rower Tala Abujbara had flirted with basketball as her sport of choice. But she settled on a life on the water after a college rowing coach spotted the "tall and athletic" student's potential.
Now 28, Abujbara is building up momentum from a creditable performance in the women's single sculls final at the world championships in Linz, Austria in 2019 as she heads to Tokyo.
"Qualifying was a huge step. And now it's just executing it," Abujbara told AFP as she prepared for practice runs under scorching summer sun across a man-made creek in the north of the Qatari capital Doha.
Abujbara, who studied in the United States where she started rowing in 8X sculls, burst onto the scene in 2018 winning gold at the second Arab Championship in indoor rowing "ergometer" hosted by Kuwait. Then in the 2019 world championships she finished 26th overall and got a chance to compare herself to the very best.
"(But) this idea of qualifying for the Olympics and competing there crept in and I've been working towards it for a few years now."
"After I graduated, I returned home here and there were no other people -- so I had no choice but to row in a single," she said laughing.
- 'Best foot forward' -
"To be honest, I'm still adjusting to it. I think I'm always a team sport athlete at heart. So that's probably been the biggest challenge," she said, adding she still visualises having her teammates alongside her.
As for taking up the sport in her conservative Muslim Gulf homeland, Abujbara, whose sister is on the national fencing team, said she was largely below the radar.
"There wasn't much of a response. I rowed very, very quietly, most of the time, just kind of coming here doing my thing, not making much noise. Not many people knew about it," she said of her sport which is uncommon in Qatar.
"I worked at (Qatar's) Aspire Academy for sports excellence for a while. And that was great, because my colleagues were sports scientists and coaches," she said.
"One of my colleagues at Aspire, his wife was a rowing coach... and they kind of took a look at the rowing qualification criteria and they realised there actually might be an opportunity for someone from this region to qualify.
"And so they planted that seed in my head a long time ago."
However the coronavirus pandemic threw Abujbara's planning, as in the case of innumerable other athletes worldwide, into disarray.
"Of course with the Olympics being delayed -- plans change, and I've had to balance both. So it's been a challenge."
The upshot was 80-hour weeks while trying to secure a place for Tokyo.
"But I'm very happy it worked out," she said.
Qatar, which has sent observers to Tokyo to study the Games' delivery because of the demands of Covid-19, will be hoping the Olympics pass off without major incident as attention switches to safely staging the 2022 World Cup.
Back at the man-made creek in Doha, Abujbara was characteristically modest about her chances at Tokyo.
"I'm nowhere near being a medal contender," she said. "We need to recognise that there are incredible women doing amazing, amazing things in this sport.
"That being said, I'd really like to put my best foot forward (and) show that I belong there."