Kariman Abuljadayel is the Saudi girl who became the first to compete in the 100m race at the Rio summer Olympics in 2016. The young sprinter may not have qualified for the finals that year, but she did win the hearts of admirers around the world for not forgoing her modest attire. Making a striking appearance on the race track, the Saudi Olympian wore a full body-kit and hijab to honor her culture and country.
Now, the inspiring Arab woman, who believes dreams do come true, Kariman Abuljadayel, advocates a sporting lifestyle and equal opportunities for women in the kingdom. The Saudi Arabian athlete spoke to AboutHer.com about her inspirations, how she made her own Olympic dreams a reality and her hopes for the future of Saudi women.
Tell us a little about yourself, who is Kariman Abuljadayel?
I’m Saudi, born and raised in the kingdom and living in Riyadh. I went to study in America and attained my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Architecture at Northeastern University in, Boston and have been a sport enthusiast ever since I was a child.
Being a young Saudi sportswoman, how did you first enter the world of athletics?
In the summer of 2012, my mom was the first to tell me that the ban for Saudi Women to participate in the Olympics had been lifted and I remember very clearly that I told her that I want to participate in Rio. She told me that nothing is impossible if you work hard for it. In fall, 2012, I started going to the Northeastern University in Boston to pursue my bachelors in Architecture and decided to train diligently once I had moved to the states. I first tried out for the school’s track team which was very hard to get into since it’s a “division 1 team” but, thankfully, I made the cut and joined the team, starting my first step in my long journey to Rio.
Did you face any cultural barriers from society or family when pursuing your sporting goals?
I involved myself as much as I could in sports back in Saudi. Along with my friends, I even made up a whole football team and organized matches in our school in Riyadh and all the proceeds from the matches went to the workers in our school. Sports brings people together and we tried to create this atmosphere with what we had when women weren’t practicing sports in schools. Back then, there was a ban on Saudi women to participate in the Olympics and I had never dreamed of participating in the Olympics. Being an athlete was never an option for a girl like me.
You participated in the 2016 Summer Olympics, how did that come about and what was it like to take part in such a huge sporting event?
Going to the Olympics was a surreal experience. The amount of pride you gain when representing your country is a feeling to live for. I was the first female 100m sprinter from Saudi and one of the first 5 Saudi females to ever participate in the Olympics. We were pioneers in our field but with that came challenges because when you’re a pioneer in anything, there aren’t any past experiences to learn from because it had never been done before. The road to The Olympics was paved with challenges. Nothing was set up for me back then - whatever I was doing, I was the first female Saudi to ever have done it. It was hard gaining confidence along the way but my mother has been always by my side pushing me to be better.
Who are the women that have inspired you in both your personal and professional life and why?
My mom is my role model and my main support system. While I was training in the US and participating in competitions, she used to travel all the way from Saudi to the US just to support me. She gave me unconditional support to follow my dreams as a Saudi female athlete in a culture that considers sport as a male domain. Without my mom, being an Olympian would’ve remained a dream for me.
You made history when you represented Saudi Arabia at the Olympic Games, how do you use your position to empower and inspire other women?
Never undervalue your dreams. I started pursuing a career in athletics at a relatively late age. It was frustrating at times to hear people say that it’s too late for me to represent my country in the Olympics. So my advice to every girl right now is that in everything you’ll do, there will definitely be doubters in your abilities. However, the most important thing is you not being one of the doubters.
Saudi Arabia is at a turning point and many reforms in favor of gender equality are beginning to take place, what do you hope to see for the future of Saudi women?
When I was around 6 or 7, I used to be obese weighing more than 70kg! I really love food, but it was hard for me to run around and play with other kids. My mom then got me into various physical activities which made me lose all of the excess weight so I could be a healthy kid again. Since then, I developed a habit of playing sports at a very young age which helped me in many ways in the long run. So my hope is to involve girls in sports and start them young, regardless if they’re overweight or not, making sport a part of their lifestyle.
What advice would you give to young women like yourself, who are passionate about sport and want to pursue careers as athletes?
There was a sign in my team’s locker room back in Northeastern University that said “inches make champions”, meaning how you do anything is how you do everything. Being an athlete isn’t my job, it’s part of who I am. When I cut corners in practice, I cut corners in other aspects of my life. Being an athlete is tough and keeps on teaching me discipline, patience, and determination. There were a lot of times where I hated going to practice at 6am, but as my coach used to tell me “there is no glory in training. But without training, there is no glory”. Sports is a lifestyle, so my main advice to other girls is be patient and keep on running.
You were recently invited to attend a motor sports event, the 2108 ABB FIA Formula E Championship, which is rather different from the races you partake in. Tell us a little about how the opportunity to attend came about, what was your role there?
I was invited by the ABB team to attend the Formula E in Zurich, Switzerland and got to understand how Formula E acts as a platform for technological and sustainable innovation which brings to light an extremely exciting and unprecedented push into the potential of electric vehicle technology. The season opener will be held in Riyadh later this year for the first time in the Middle East with the introduction of the new generation of E-cars. This whole experience is to introduce these type of races and expose them to the Saudi society especially since women will be driving this June.
What was it like to be there and did the event inspire you in any way?
The event from start to end was something new to me. It changed the way I thought about motorsports. Seeing the e-motors racing in the middle of the city was amazing, people were getting crazy climbing everywhere possible in order to have a better view of the cars! The event in Zurich attracted more than 150,000 attendees. I can’t wait for the race arriving in Riyadh this December
Following the lift on the driving ban for women, are you hoping to see Saudi women partake in motor sports in the near future?
Definitely! It even crossed my mind when I was driving in one of the driving stimulators and it was a fun experience. I believe introducing events like ABB FIA Formula E Championship to the Saudi Society will attract a lot of enthusiasts, men and women, in partaking in motorsport.
Are you taking the opportunity to obtain your driving license?
I actually have a US driver’s license and switched it to the Saudi one. Driving has been a very important factor for me to be an independent woman in my career
Lastly, what empowers you?
To be the best in what I do and help empower others to reach their peak.