By Razan Baker
In 1948 United States President Harry Truman signed a bill proclaiming Feb. 1 as National Freedom Day. Ironically, a Saudi girl born on that day is now emerging as a torch for women in Saudi Arabia by showing how freedom to perform can allow women to achieve their goals.
Dalma Rushdi Malhas, born in Ohio in 1992, literally rode her way to fame with a medal-winning performance in the recent Singapore Youth Olympics and is now a symbol of how achievement and freedom go hand-in-hand. Like her, Saudi women given the freedom will achieve their goals and not only make themselves proud, but also their families and the country too.
But like all success stories, Malhas showed that dedication and persistence too are needed to reach the pinnacle. For only passion would take a person this far, but not necessarily to the top.
Malhas inherited her passion for equestrian sport from her mother Arwa Mutabagani, whose competitive performances had made her one of the top equestriennes in her heyday. Today, following her sterling displays, she is a board member at the Saudi Equestrian Federation from 2008.
Though her mother was an excellent rider, Malhas’ passion and grit made all the difference in the Singapore event from Aug. 14-26 for the age group 14-18. Her efforts won her the bronze and also made her the third Saudi Arabian athlete to land a medal in Olympics.
In the 32-year history of the Kingdom’s Olympic participation, the country has managed to win only two medals — in the 2000 Sydney Games thanks to 33-year-old hurdler Hadi Souan, who got the silver in the 400-meter hurdles with a 47.53 seconds effort, and veteran equestrian Khalid Al-Eid, 40, who secured the bronze medal with his horse Khashm Al-Aan.
Though equestrian means a lot to Saudi Arabian culture and religion, it is not an easy sport for anyone to practice in the Kingdom, especially because sports is not encouraged for women, due to traditional and cultural restrictions. Malhas, however, was fortunate to be brought up in an open-minded family. She opened her eyes and found herself surrounded by horses at the Mutabagani’s Trio Ranch, which belongs to her mother in Jeddah.
Hence instead of only riding toy rocking ponies, she saddled up on the real thing at the very early age of four. She immediately fell in love with them. “If it wasn’t for my love and passion for equestrian sport, there is no way that I would have reached this far,” she said. From then on Malhas’ single-minded focus on excelling as an equestrienne was the bedrock on which she built her life. The early start to riding was an added advantage.
As any rider who aims to increase his or her skills by competing in the European equestrian annual championships, Malhas too felt that this was the route she needed to take. At the age of 12 she traveled to Rome where she started to compete in more advanced competitions and under the supervision of her coach, Duccio Bartalucci, a former coach for the national Olympic show jumping team of Italy.
Malhas attributes her success to Bartalucci, who honed her skills so that she was a competitive championship rider. “Nothing really matters if you don’t have the right team, and I have been really lucky to have him as my coach for the past five years. He has taught me everything I needed to know about riding and how to become the champion I am now,” she said.
After spending a few years in Rome and getting her International Baccalaureate, she went to France and trained there with absolute dedication at the Forsan Equestrian Centre in Chantilly, which also belongs to her mother. However, unlike the Trio Ranch where children and youth get to train and socialize, this two-year long project is only for professionals to train and compete.
The Olympic experience
After participating in several competitions abroad, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was already aware of Malhas and her performance. Due to the fact that each country has to field a minimum of one woman in the mandatory quota set by the IOC in order for a nation to take part in the Games, the IOC invited Malhas to represent her country. “I didn’t know whether I was allowed (to participate) but when I got invited of course I didn’t think twice and went at my own expense,” she said.
She was introduced for the first time to the rules and regulations of the Olympics where she could only use horses picked by the IOC for the events. “It wasn’t easy to get into such a huge competition with a new horse. However, the training since my early age on different types of horses helped me a lot, and that stood me in good stead on Flash Top Hat, the ride chosen for me,” she said.
For two weeks she spent almost all the time possible with the horse and both the rider and the horse underwent a strict regimen of training before competing. In her first attempt she racked up 16 penalties. A not so heady start…. “I was devastated, I thought I had lost my chance. But my team, which included my supporters, my coach and my mother, then shored up my confidence. This is what I meant when I said that one’s team plays a pivotal role in one’s success. They assured me that I still had a chance and told me to just focus, and take it a step at a time; and this is exactly what I did,” she said.
“I didn’t care much about me being there as a representative of Saudi Arabia, because anyone could probably do that. But getting a medal was the key, and that’s not easy for anyone, and I wanted that — and only that gives recognition to my country,” she said.
“In the second round, though tension was tight, I concentrated on my performance,” she said and rounded off with only four penalties, and this put her among six contestants who all were vying for the bronze.
In her last attempt, Malhas said, “I had to be cold blooded.” The difference would be a place on the podium or out of it. “I took some risks and thank God I managed to finish fast and clear with no penalties. My focused and attacking display put me in the front. It wasn’t over yet. I had to wait for the rest to compete and despite the nerve-wracking wait, none could surpass my performance, thank God,” she said.
Princess Haya Al-Hussein, president of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) was there to applaud Malhas’ performance. Perhaps she saw in Malhas a reflection of herself as she had been the first to represent her country Jordan as an equestrienne several years ago.
According to Malhas, “It didn’t hit me that I had succeeded until they announced my name and Princess Haya came to award us with the medals; it was such an honor, she hugged me. I knew I felt it; it was a hug from her heart. She was very nice supporting me all through the competition and at the end congratulating me. This Olympics is such an unforgettable experience.”
Youthful and fearless
Young at heart, fearless and dedicated, the 160 cm tall rider stood even higher when she earned her medal fair and square, not with luck, as her mother would say, but with hard work. Participating in the Olympics was a thing almost no one would have thought possible five years ago. But she did. She came to Singapore and conquered not only the hearts of the people, but also rode over the barriers, literally and metaphorically, to land her medal. Her display booked her a spot in the front pages of almost all Saudi Arabian local newspapers, if not in the Gulf as well.
Calm and polite Malhas is a talented girl and she gives her full concentration to her other gifts as she does to riding. She is a fair hand at drawing and is proficient in English, Italian, French and of course her native tongue Arabic. She is also an excellent swimmer, an art that is a hobby. “I too socialize with friends, otherwise its always equestrian that I love to read about, follow its news and know as much as possible about its leading lights.”
Malhas also competed in different classes of show jumping up to the height of 1.35m. For two consecutive years, she was chosen as one of four riders to represent the regional team of Lazio in one of the most prestigious show jumping events in Italy, Piazza di Siena. In 2007, her team came fourth. She was also one of the 10 children chosen to participate in the final selection qualifying for the European Children’s’ Championship in Istanbul 2007.
In the same year she competed in 11 shows with 25 classes and won 15 classes, two second places and one third place. She also qualified for the finals of the Junior Championship in 2007 in Cervia, Italy, ranking fourth out of 88 riders after the three qualifying rounds.
Now Malhas looks forward to her time in London where she will start her bachelor in finance and oriental studies at SOAS University of London this September.
What’s next for Malhas? Is she going to participate again anytime soon, or is she going to hit the book? She has said, “For now I’ll just concentrate on my studies and try to take every step one at a time.”
Though Malhas managed to make the dream of her mother come true, and in fact fulfilled the dream of many Saudi sportswomen to be able to participate in sports officially and make their country proud, she said, “I’m really thankful for all the support I got from my family, friends and even Saudi riders whom I really admire and have been watching for a long time now.”
“I never thought I’d get this much support. People are calling and texting me. I’m really grateful, thank God. I hope this medal would open the door for many Saudi Arabian women in my country and in the Arab world too. They just need to work hard; if I did it, they could do it too,” she added.
(Courtesy: Arab News)