On an average day,?Zahra?Lari?wakes up at?4:30 a.m.?and drives to Abu Dhabi’s only ice rink. She trains until?7:30 a.m., goes to school for a few hours, gets back on the ice at?noon, returns to university for afternoon classes, and finishes her day with off-ice?running and?weight training (plus homework, sponsor meetings, and media interviews). Her intense schedule mirrors that of any world-famous athlete—and yet, on a recent call, she was quick to insist: “It’s not just about skating or winning.”
Put simply,?Lari, 22, is making history. She’s the first figure skater from the United Arab Emirates to compete internationally, and her rapid success led the UAE to become the first Arab state to join the International Skating Union. On top of that, she started pretty late: She begged her parents to let her try skating recreationally at age 12 (her inspiration was the movie?Ice Princess), and by 16, her coaches told her she was ready to compete against girls who started training before they could tie their own skates.
“Going to my first competition was just a fun thing for me, but that’s when I realized things were not going to be the same as before,”?Lari?says. At the competition, she was docked points for wearing a hijab on the ice—a terrible judging error that made headlines around the world.?After the event,?Lari?met with the ISU and convinced them to amend their rule book to allow Muslim skaters to cover their hair. It got Nike’s attention; not only did the company ask?Lari?to help design the new Nike Pro Hijab, but she also fronts the campaign. “Being able to show girls around the world that this major company is [making] a hijab, and is supporting Muslim athletes—that alone can encourage people to do whatever sport they want,” she says.
In the UAE, that’s a relatively new concept. But?Lari?wants to keep building the momentum: “When I started skating, no one here even knew what it was,” she says, recalling the not-too-distant rarity of watching women play sports. “My dad actually stopped me from competing in the beginning, not because he didn’t accept me, but he was scared of what society would say about his daughter doing the sport.”
On Instagram,?Lari’s posts are filled with positive comments from other athletes, fans, and women from around the world. “On social media, I get so many messages from girls and their mothers saying that because of me, they feel confident to try a sport, too,” she says. “That’s the work I really want to do. Skating is very important to me, but it’s not just about skating anymore—it’s about the message I want to send out to people all over the world.”
That message, says her mom and manager, Roquiya, is one of empowerment. “Zahra?tells students that if you’re a female or you’re Muslim, there’s nothing that should keep you from being a success in whatever you dream of.” With a steady stream of school speeches on health and fitness, balancing activism with her skating career doesn’t leave much room for free time. But when she does have an hour to spare,?Lari?is like?any other twentysomething?and heads to the beach. “I love the water,” she says. “It’s kind of weird—I’m either freezing on the ice, or I’m out in the sun.” She can’t remember the last time she took a real vacation, though; skaters have to train year-round, even when they aren’t competing. “If you stop for a week, it can take time to get all the jumps back,” she explains. “But if you love a sport, you sacrifice for it.”
Here,?Lari?takes?Vogue?along for her not-so-typical day, from practice to a photo shoot and a mentoring session with young Muslim athletes.?Many of them are already enjoying?Lari’s influence in figure skating and other sports in the region—and will no doubt follow her lead in the years ahead.