After Maryam Jamal’s stunning success in the 2012 London Olympics, the bronze medallist has hung up her running shoes for a month of well-deserved rest and relaxation.
The 1,500-metre middle distance star jump-started her vacation plans by taking some time off in the kingdom that she loves.
While her husband and coach Tariq Sabt made his way to Dubai for business meetings, Maryam caught up with friends and fans in Bahrain while kicking back and unwinding at the Elite Grand Hotel in Seef.
In between her trips to the mall and dinner engagements, Maryam found time to share her memories of the London Olympics and spoke of the challenges of competing at the highest levels of international sport with GulfWeekly in an up-close and personal interview.
The athlete was sitting in the lobby waiting patiently and looked stunning. Dressed in dark denim, wearing cheetah print earrings, a trendy white sports coat and tank top, the 28-year-old athlete looked more like a model than a runner. Her smile lit up the room and wherever she walked all eyes seemed to follow her.
In her hotel room she poured tea, sat down cross-legged displaying a natural air of confidence and charm. She appeared comfortable being in the spotlight and said: “There was a time when people here did not recognise me but they definitely do now. This race has turned my world around.
“Right now I’m taking a month-long break and then I will restart my training for a road race in two months’ time in Switzerland.”
Since crossing the finishing line in London, Maryam has been bombarded with wishes of goodwill and she also received a hero’s welcome upon her return to the kingdom.
His Majesty King Hamad congratulated her on her Olympic achievement and thanked her for promoting Bahrain on the international sporting stage.
She said: “I dedicated my win to His Majesty because of his continuous support. I love this kingdom. I received my Bahraini citizenship in 2005 and am extremely grateful for all that has been done for me as well as for the support I have received from the Bahrain Olympic Committee and the Bahrain Athletics’ Association. They have always backed me.”
Maryam and Tariq, who were forced to leave Ethiopia due to political problems, sought asylum in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she now trains, and successfully applied for Bahraini citizenship.
She hopes her running successes will help inspire young Bahrainis to achieve their dreams and also take up a sport. “My message to all youngsters is simple - now is not the time to sleep. Train hard, become physically fit and mentally strong and you will achieve your dreams,” Maryam said.
“I believe that if you really want something then you can get it. I have always wanted to run because I have always loved sport and that is why I have become a champion.
“If I hadn’t worked hard at it then I would not have gotten anywhere. You need to be strong no matter what - whether it is in sport or any other aspect of your life.”
Maryam, born in Arsi Zne in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, first took to the sport at the age of 15 in school despite her mother’s constant warnings to slow down. As a teen, she had suffered a minor heart deficiency which fortunately resolved itself as she grew stronger.
She explained: “I didn’t listen to my family, kept running and now look at me. My heart is stronger and my fitness levels are great. Running has helped me with everything in my life.”
Maryam has made sporting headlines with numerous race successes over the years but will forever be remembered as the first athlete wearing Bahrain’s colours to bag an Olympic medal.
It’s hard to believe that only two months before the big day that changed her life, Maryam was seriously contemplating having to pull out of the Olympics due to a serious ankle injury she suffered at a Diamond League competitive meeting in May.
The Samsung Diamond League is an annual series of track and field meetings designed to enhance the worldwide appeal of athletics and attracts the world’s top competitors.
She explained: “The back of my ankle was slashed with a spike. At first I thought I would not be able to run in the London Olympics which was such a shame as I had been training twice-a-week in the gym and three-times-a-week on the track just for that event.
“I received a lot of calls from Bahrain asking if I was OK and to not feel pressured about making it. I appreciated their concern and support and I knew I could not let them down. I started intensive physiotherapy and God was on my side.
“Step-by-step I began to train. I recovered and set my sights on a medal. I was extremely happy with my result especially after coming back from such an injury in such a short amount of time. I refused to listen to the pain in my ankle. It really was a case of mind over matter.”
Maryam felt she had a lot to prove after her first unsuccessful Olympic outing in Beijing in 2008 when she finished fifth in the final.
She said: “My first Olympic experience was depressing. I just didn’t feel ready for it mentally although physically I was more than capable. I could not let the London Olympics pass me by.
“At Diamond League competitions, if you lose it’s not a problem, as you can always win the next race, but with the Olympics it’s more a case of ‘now or never’. If you lose once you don’t know if you will qualify for the next one four years later.
“But perhaps I’ve changed inside. I honestly believe that if I had been in better physical shape in London I could have gotten that gold and that is what I’m aiming for at the next Olympics. There is no looking back now.”
Maryam described how she motivates herself before every race. She either stands in front of a mirror or closes her eyes and repeats the mantra: “I am strong and I can win.”
That positive attitude appears to be working. After the Summer Games she raced in the Diamond League meeting in Stockholm on August 17 and took first place with a new seasonal best of 4:01.19.
For Maryam her future is still undetermined and while she enjoys running in the 1500m category she is thinking further down the line of trying her hand at 5000m or even a marathon.
Apparently runners don’t retire, they just run longer distances.
There is always a price with fame, sometimes coming in the form of back-sniping and rumour mongering. There were recent suggestions that her marriage was in trouble. She hit back saying her relationship with her 33-year-old husband had always been strong and that he had been by her side throughout her training sessions and competitions.
She said: “He was there on the sidelines in London and when I crossed the line I could see tears of joy welling up in his eyes. He has been, and remains, my biggest fan and supporter.”
They are as solid as a rock … and she hopes as lasting as the support she receives from her fans in Bahrain.