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Olympics: Female swimmer challenges Libyan taboos

20 July 2016, 21:59

Tripoli - Few Libyan women would wear a swimming costume in public, but Daniah Hagul wants to help change a conservative society when she competes at the Rio Olympics.

In Libya "a significant number of boys but hardly any other girls swim, so I hope that they watch me and are inspired to do the same," said the 17-year-old.

Libya has a 1,770-kilometre (1,100-mile) coastline, but on top of social pressures and political strife that followed the 2011 revolt against dictator Moamer Kadhafi, swimming pools and clubs are almost non-existent.

The budget of the Libyan Swimming Federation (LSF) is severely limited.

Hagul will be the first female swimmer to represent Libya in the Olympics since the revolution.

"It's such an honour and a privilege and I can't wait to do my country proud," she told AFP.

Hagul has won medals in international competitions and qualified for last year's World Championships in Kazan, Russia.

Hagul's rise owes much to her parents' decision to move to Malta in the 1990s. Many Libyans live in exile on the Mediterranean island.

"In Malta it gets really hot in the summer. Everyone is always either in the pool or in the sea and everyone has to know how to swim," she said.

"So I began swimming lessons just to know how to swim at about the age of three or four. And when I was 12 I just decided that I wanted to take it up properly, competitively."

Her father Bashir said living outside of Libya made it possible for Hagul to compete internationally.

- beacon for Libyan women -

Bashir and his wife Samira hope that their daughter can help change mentalities in their country.

"Competitive swimming for girls is new to Libya and some people are finding the concept too much of a challenge," said Samira.

"However, I truly believe it all starts with parents who should challenge rigid mindsets by encouraging and supporting their girls to pursue this great sport."

Few women have represented Libya at the Olympics.

At the 2008 Beijing Games, Libyan-American Asmahan Farhat won a heat in a 100m breaststroke but did not get to the semi-finals.

Freestyler Amira Edrahi competed at Athens in 2004, the first Libyan woman swimmer at an Olympics since Soad and Nadia Fezzani in the 1980 Moscow Games.

The Libyan press has given Daniah little coverage.

But she is often mentioned on social media by Libyans who hope she can win a medal -- a rare good news story for a country immersed in conflict.

Hagul has won a place at the Mount Kelly school in Britain's Devon countryside. The school has produced 19 Olympic or Commonwealth Games swimmers and six Olympic medal winners.

She is not impressed by the British weather but is inspired by the school's swimming programme devised by Robin Brew who swam for Britain at the 1984 Olympics.

"Robin is a great coach and mentor," Hagul said.

With Rio looming, Hagul gets up early every morning to swim lengths before classes. During holidays in Malta, she spends hours training with her coach.

"I remember watching the 2012 London Olympics at my grandfather's farm in Azzahra, Libya where we used to spend all our summer holidays," she said.

"I used to watch all the swimming events really closely and thought how wonderful it would be if I could represent Libya at the next Olympics."

But even after she caught the attention of the Libyan Olympic Committee, financial support has been limited because of the country's strife.

Her training and travel costs have mostly been covered by her parents. A Libyan conglomerate, HBGroup, has also supported her.

A crowd-funding campaign -- "Help fund Daniah's Olympic Dream!" -- collected more than 6,800 euros ($7,700) in a month.

"A lot of blood, sweat and tears have gone into her swimming and it has all paid off," said Hagul's mother.

"Daniah is very focused, determined and always rises to a challenge."

Also read: President Buhari warns Nigerian athletes against drugs in Rio

Hagul hopes to start university in 2017 and qualify as an architect.

"I've always loved maths and design and recently I have developed a real interest in photography. I think the combination of all three subjects will hopefully pave the way for a career for me as an architect," she says.

Hagul is also looking forward to hearing the stories of other Libyan athletes in Rio.

Only one other Libyan, 50-metre freestyler Ahmed Attellesey, will be competing in the swimming. He trains in Sweden.

Other Libyans will compete in judo, taekwondo, athletics and rowing.

Libyans have taken part 10 Olympics, but never won a medal.

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