Saudi taekwondo competitor Donia Abu Taleb
Saudi taekwondo competitor Donia Abu Taleb (centre) attends a training camp in Abha. Image Credit: AFP

Abha: Saudi taekwondo standout Donia Abu Taleb had an unusual introduction to the sport: for years she trained at a boys' club because there were no girls to compete with.

Now the 27-year-old has become the first Saudi woman to qualify for the Olympics and is dreaming of bringing home the kingdom's first gold medal when she competes in Paris.

Though her smiling face appears on posters and billboards today, the Jeddah native had much humbler beginnings.

"I started taekwondo when I was eight years old and there was no support like now," Abu Taleb, who also has a law degree, told AFP after a recent training session in the southern mountain city of Abha.

"I always played with the boys in the boys' centre, originally without girls. I used to wear a head-covering on my hair so as not to show that I was a girl."

Facing off against boys, she added, "distinguished me and made me strong... I love the challenge".

Saudi taekwondo competitor Donia Abu Taleb
Saudi taekwondo competitor Donia Abu Taleb poses for a picture during a training camp in Abha. Image Credit: AFP

High hopes for Paris

Abu Taleb bagged gold at the 2020 Arab Taekwondo Championship and bronze medals at the Asian and world championships in 2022.

Earlier this year she upgraded to gold at the Asian Taekwondo Championships.

She has high hopes for Paris, she told AFP at the Abha training centre, standing near a large banner bearing her picture.

"From the beginning, I dreamed of being a world champion, participating in the Olympics, and winning gold," she said.

To date, Saudi Arabia has won two bronze and two silver medals at the Olympics, all for men.

'Kill or be killed'

Saudi Arabia hired Russian coach Kurban Bogdaev, who guided Tunisian Mohamed Jendoubi to silver at the Tokyo Olympics, to coach the Saudi taekwondo team.

"The first time I saw Donia, her level was low, but I saw her eager to grow and achieve," Bogdaev said, adding that he did not necessarily view her as an Olympic prospect at first.

But she "trains hard, always believes in herself, and is confident in what she can do", he added.

At the recent training session in Abha organised by the Saudi Taekwondo Federation, Abu Taleb, wearing a blue helmet and using a kick pad, nimbly avoided blows from athletes from Russia and Uzbekistan.

"Preparing an Olympic champion takes many years and is a state project," Shaddad Al Omari, the federation's president, told AFP.

Abu Taleb has quickly blossomed from "an unranked athlete to a player near the top of the rankings".

As the Olympics approach, Abu Taleb is fully aware of the pressure she'll be under but insists she can handle it.

"As the first Saudi woman to qualify for the Olympics, I have reached the stage of kill or be killed," she said.

"I have reached a place where I must achieve something."