Photo courtesy of Zahra Lari

By Julia Kennedy

Zahra Lari, 21, grew up like most girls. She watched Disney movies, posted pictures of herself with friends on Instagram, and developed an affinity for Starbucks. Raised in Abu Dhabi, she also turned her attention toward the Olympics whenever they came around.

Unlike other girls, however, a Disney movie inspired her to make her own Olympic push.

Lari saw Ice Princess, a 2005 film featuring a girl who is torn between ice skating and academics, but ultimately steers herself toward skating.

“I loved the beauty, artistry and technical aspects, and my dad started me with lessons once a week,” Lari said of becoming inspired by the movie at age 11.

Skating was initially an after school hobby. But, she became hooked on the sport, and talented enough to represent her country in international competitions once the United Arab E mirates became part of the International Skating Union in 2013.

Dubbed the “Ice Princess in the hijab” by media, the road to Olympic success has been paved with tougher times than your average competitive ice skater.

Lari has run into issues ranging from having difficulty securing sponsorships to opposition that she even skate at all — including from her father.

She told the Huffington Post, “There was a period of time that my dad wanted me to stop because he said that I was getting too serious, and he felt that I had reached the age that I needed to stop.”

None of that fazed Lari, who, after gaining her father’s approval, has gone full-speed ahead in her training for the Olympics.

“When he saw how happy I was for other skaters, but sad for myself, he allowed me to continue,” she said. “That was when he finally understood me and how much I truly loved this sport.”

If she qualifies for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, she will be the first athlete to represent the UAE at the Winter Games, and one of only a few to don a hijab in Olympic competition.

Like everyone, she has doubters and those who say she shouldn’t be competing. She hears it all on social media, but she has learned how to brush it off her shoulders.

“I’m proud of who I am and what I’m doing,” Lari said. “The people who criticize me will always be criticizing someone. I choose to surround myself with positive and loving people.”

For now, Lari dedicates most of her days to training, and has embraced her role as an inspiration to not only other Muslim and Arab women, but to young women across the globe who want to follow their own dreams. She believes the key to that is in education.

“I think it is just about educating the society on women and their abilities,” Lari said. “It’s about having everyone understand that women can do anything they want without sacrificing their culture, faith or family. I think you must always hold your head high, even when you are different.”

Great words from the “Ice Princess in the hijab.”