Finding success and contentment in what you love doing is something that inspires most of us, not least Shaikha Maitha Bint Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Being the eldest daughter of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Shaikha Maitha was always destined for fame. But instead of self-indulging in her preordained royalty, she has gone on to forge a glittering sporting career that has earned her the utmost respect.
It is this remarkable attitude that has seen her make history as the first woman from the UAE to win an international gold medal, and a silver, at the Asian Games in karate. Shaikha Maitha has also competed in the demanding sport of endurance riding and more recently she is making her mark as an accomplished polo player and the driving force behind the championship-winning UAE Polo Team.
During the back end of the 20th century, Emirati girls did not have the opportunity to compete in sports like martial arts, and there were no fight categories for people like Shaikha Maitha who was beginning make her way into karate, a sport that focuses on the mind as much as the body.
But Shaikha Maitha would help change the limitations and restrictions put on women and break new ground when she competed for the very first time in the year 2000. It was a landmark year as it was when girls were allowed to fight in the country, under the UAE Karate Federation.
It was the start of something big and the onset of Shaikha Maitha’s magical journey, where she would master and incorporate sport into her way of life.
In the 90s, women competing in sport was unheard of but my father was the first person to support women in sports and he led by example when my sisters and I competed in endurance back in 1991.
Now, at the peak of her polo playing career, a phase that has seen her UAE Polo Team win honours and accolades across the country, region and world, Shaikha Maitha talked to Gulf News and revealed that she is still pursuing her dreams.
“It all started as a hobby and then developed into competitions,” Shaikha Maitha says.
“In the 90’s, women competing in sport was unheard of but my father was the first person to support women in sports and he led by example when my sisters and I competed in endurance back in 1991. It was my first competition and the UAE’s first endurance race. “
“My father is a horsemen and martial artist, so it’s something I’ve been around all my life,” she adds, showing reverence to Shaikh Mohammad, himself a karate black-belt and world endurance champion.”
With the backing and support from her father, Shaikha Maitha took up the challenge to practice sports like karate and taekwondo.
The turning point in her sporting career came in the late 90s.
“I was introduced to polo in 1997,” she says. “After years of riding injuries I took up martial arts as a hobby in 1999. That evolved and I started competing seriously in 2000.”
Most of us are in agreement that gender biases in sport are artificial and that Shaikha Maitha was determined to change the perception of how people profile women who indulge in combat sport.
As a result she has carved a niche for herself in the sport as the only woman competing in high-goal polo tournaments in the country.
“Sports, like karate and taekwondo, are all combat sports and ancient war games, which tie into my admiration for my culture and heritage,” Shaikha Maitha says.
Is there something deeper, more profound, which fires her passion for sport, and more recently her passion for polo?
“The ultimate goal for any athlete is to win and beat the best,” Shaikha Maitha says, again consummately breaking down myths and prejudices against women.
“That will always be the aim even though I consider myself semi-retired. I play sports because I always have. I compete because I’ve been doing so since I was 12.
“I do what I love and love what I do - win, lose or draw.”
Any lingering doubts about what motivates her firmly tips the balance firmly in her favour.
“In Arabic horsemen and Knight is the same word,” Shaikha Maitha says. “Polo has been my focus the last few years and I’m very fortunate to have a great team that is always improving.
“The UAE Polo Team has already won all the major championships in the UAE and this coming year will be a lot of fun with the horse power we have.”
Looking back on all that she has accomplished, in martial arts or on pristine polo fields in the UAE or around the world, it is obvious that sports have been the biggest part of her life.
There is also something so magical about Shaikha Maitha’s wholehearted commitment to sport which undeniably comes from the heart. The magic occurs on two fronts, both in her involvement and on what she has got back in return.
How rewarding has it all been - the enjoyment, the euphoria, the recognition?
“Recognition? I already have it and it has never been a factor,” she says, without mincing her words.
“Polo for me is a passion and horses are my obsession.”
2000 regal years of Polo
Polo is a game played on horseback between two teams of four players each on an outdoor grass field 300 yards (274.3 m) long by 160 yards wide. Players use mallets (like hockey sticks) with long, flexible handles to hit a wooden ball down a grass field to try and score a goal. A goal is scored when it is hit between two goal posts, 8 yards wide. A game consists of six periods of 7 1/2 minutes each, called chukkers, chukkars, or chukkas. Eight chukkers are played in Argentina, and four is a common number in England, the European continent and the Middle East.
Polo is the oldest equestrian sport in the world. It was first played in Persia (Iran) sometime between the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD. Polo originally was a training game for cavalry units, usually the king’s guard or elite troops. Gradually it became a national sport played by nobility. Women as well as men played the game. It gradually spread to Arabia, Tibet, China, Japan and India. By the 19th century the game would spread rapidly and the first informal matches were held between British cavalry units stationed in India.
By 1875 Polo grew rapidly in England, with matches at Richmond Park and Hurlingham attracting more than 10,000 spectators.
The first international competition took place in 1886 when the United States unsuccessfully challenged the English for the Westchester Cup.
Through the 1920s and ’30s polo became increasingly popular in Argentina.
Specially bred polo ponies, not different to horses, are used in the game. A polo pony is blessed with agility, speed, endurance, and intelligence. The pony is judged to be 60 to 75 percent of a player’s ability. At first only Thoroughbred horses were used, but horses of mixed breeding are now common. Most of the best ponies are bred in Argentina or in the Southwestern or Rocky Mountain regions of the United States. Polo ponies reach their peak at about age 9 or 10 and may sometime play till the age of 18 or 20.
The ball is made of bamboo or willow root and is about 3 1/4 inches (8.3 cm) in diameter and weighs about 4 ounces (113.4 g). The mallet is a flexible bamboo-cane shaft with a bamboo head 9 1/2 inches in length. It weighs about 7 ounces and varies from 48 to 53 inches, depending on the size of the pony and length of a player’s arm.
Polo in the UAE
Polo is a popular sport in the UAE. President Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan built the Ghantoot Racing and Polo Club in 1994. It grew under the patronage of his son Shaikh Falah Bin Zayed Al Nayan.and major support from Shaikha Maitha Bint Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum took part in the Cartier Queen's Cup in Guards Polo Club. Shaikha Maitha formed the UAE Polo Team who are one of the most formidable teams in the country. Teams from the UAE participate in tournaments around the country and also in the UK, Spain, and Argentina. Polo clubs in the UAE follow the rules established by the UK Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA).