It is no secret that Qatar has high ambitions in sports; this is evident through the state’s support of its players and through the state’s efforts to host international sporting events. In recent years, Qatar’s interest in women’s sport has increased as we witnessed the establishment of the Qatar Women’s Sports Committee in 2000. However, Qatar’s women’s sports remain underdeveloped even with Qatar’s massive support for its female players and success in hosting international sports events. There are some non-mainstream sports that Qatari women have not explored yet. In addition to that, many of the current team sports suffer from a low number of players. One of these sports is taekwondo. In this interview, we will highlight Kaltham Mubarak Al Mutawa’s journey to being Qatar’s taekwondo champion. So, who is Kaltham Mubarak AL Mutawaa?
I am a taekwondo player in Qatar’s national team. Currently, I play in the under 49 Kg category. Since I was a child, I had a great passion for sports; I loved sports of all kinds. Whenever I would find out about a particular sport, I would research it and find places to try it. So, I was playing any sport that I had the desire to try. Furthermore, I was active with my school’s sports team, and I participated with them in gymnastics and karate. However, in the end, I decided to become a professional taekwondo player.
What encouraged you to pursue taekwondo as a profession?
Karate is what led me to pursue taekwondo. When I was playing karate, a friend of my mine who was playing taekwondo would tell me about it a lot and encouraged me to try it, mainly because the taekwondo team needed more players. So, I decided to give it a try since I loved trying new sports and because I did not have a significant attachment to karate, as I was an amateur player. However, taekwondo was love at first trial! I found myself drawn to it more than any other sport I have played before; It felt as if I belong to it. That is how my journey in taekwondo started, back in 2006, and all thanks to Allah, I had great success in it, and I am still an active player to date.
How many tournaments have you participated in during your 15-year long career?
I participated in local and international camps and represented Qatar in many championships. For example, I participated in Kazakhstan camp, the Gulf camp, and camps in Arab countries such as Jordan and Egypt. I have always participated in the Gulf tournament. All thanks to Allah, I had always succeeded in it, earning gold medals. Furthermore, I participated in the Asian and the World tournament, where I achieved an outstanding international rank.
Can you tell us about a memory you are fond of during your career?
In my opinion, the tournaments I participated in were unique, and each one of them left its special mark on me. When I first started playing, I used to think that my only role was to play my match and leave. However, with time, maturity, and the help of my coach, I became more engaged in the sport. For example, I started to attend and watch other players’ matches, even those that do not belong to the category I play in. I analyzed those games, and I learned a lot just from watching the games and studying them. It is a simple practice, but it had a significant effect on my skills and performance.
How was your experience being a sportswoman and studying at the same time?
I was playing and studying at the same time when I was in high school, and I faced no problems while doing so. Unfortunately, things changed after I graduated from school and joined university. One of the obstacles I faced was the university not accommodating my obligations as a sportswoman. For example, when I needed to travel for tournaments and boot camps, the university would ask me for many documents and official papers to give me the leave, and getting those documents required time and a lot of effort. It was so hard to get them that we ended up canceling our participation in some tournaments. Things got too complicated that I was left with no option but to choose between sports and education. So, I chose sports because of my talent, great experience, and love for it. At that time, I was sure that if I put more effort into my skills, I can eventually participate in world championships, such as the Asian Championship. I was sure I could win medals for my country, and I would not give up on that dream. Another problem I faced was choosing a major to study. In 2008, I tried to join the Physical Education (PE) program offered by Qatar University (QU). I thought that QU would prioritize me as a student who is also a professional sportswoman. However, my experience and profession did not make a big difference, and I was frustrated by their lack of interest. Moreover, there were other obstacles in that journey, and all these reasons forced me to stop my education. I then enrolled in Community College after QU shut down their PE program. However, the program was reopened in 2018, so I left the community college to pursue PE in QU again. I am still trying to complete my studies in physical education because I see it as the most appropriate program for me. Sadly, the other obstacles still exist and are still frustrating me. Nevertheless, I am determined to complete my study. So, I hope this time my experience in QU will be different and that they will be more accommodating to my needs as a professional sportsperson.
Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
One of the difficulties that taekwondo is facing in Qatar is the lack of female players. Taekwondo is a combat game with seven weights. If we had more players, we would be able to conduct better and tougher practice, which would improve our skills. So, the lack of players really hinders our chances of creating a stronger training routine that allows those who participate in lower weight ranges to train with those in a higher weight range. If I continue to train with someone below my weight category, then my skills will not be challenged. Unfortunately, this lack of experience is evident when I participate in tournaments and face players who are confident in their skills. I tried to address this challenge and reduce its impact on my skills by training with my male colleagues. We have male players in different categories who are highly skilled due to their participation and exposure in various tournaments. So, I am able to challenge myself with their experience. All thanks to Allah, this step and my participation in tournaments have helped me refine my skills to reach my current level. However, I would like to make it clear that the lack of female players is due to many reasons; some players have had to leave taekwondo because of school or work conditions, sometimes because of pressure from parents and society. I have not had much trouble with my family to convince them about my sports career, and they are fine with me traveling for my job. I am blessed to have a family that is both understanding and caring. My family knows the team that I work with, and they trust them, especially my mother, who has the most concern and care for me.
Do you think that more women will be encouraged to join taekwondo now?
I always encourage women by talking to them about taekwondo and its benefits, and some are very interested in what I do. Sometimes I receive calls from the families of the girls asking about my experience, about the team I work with, and such things. However, our issue is that some traditions are restricting women in the field of sports. Parents refuse to let their daughters travel, and others refuse to let women pursue sports that involve fights. They view this type of sport as an area suitable only for men, not to mention that many have the wrong impression of sports and how we train. They think that we always train with men, but there are separate teams and training spaces for women and men. The two teams have their own coaches, and we rarely deal with men’s teams.
Have you had a negative experience that left a mark on you during your career?
I think all experiences can be positive if we learn from them. However, I would say that one experience affected me so negatively that I stopped playing for a while. It is when I suffered a muscle tear during my preparation for a match that would qualify me for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. During the game, I was aware that I might be injured, but I did not want to stop the game and withdraw. I prefer to continue and play, even if I lost in the end. So, I continued to play in the game with my injury, and with each blow, the muscle’s tear was getting worse, and the injury intensified. My coach was the one who made the call to stop me and withdraw me from the game. He was afraid that my continuation would only make things worse, as we usually prioritize the player’s safety. The injury and withdrawal from the match had a big impact on me. I had to undergo surgery and stop playing till I became fully recovered. All this made me mentally exhausted. The experience planted a seed of fear in my head that kept growing. Firstly, I was afraid of what people might think of me because I was pulled out of the game. Secondly, I was scared of getting injured again if I went back to playing. This fear would show up when I was practicing with someone else, as I feared for their safety. Of course, it is important to make sure of my safety and the safety of others, but the problem was that I was in a state of constant fear. After a year of continuous treatment, the physiotherapist supervising my condition advised me not to rush to return to playing so that I can fully recover and heal. However, I felt that I must go back to playing because stopping now will be similar to giving up, and the fear will grow. I knew that if I let the fear stop me now, I will not only stop playing, but I will never be the Kaltham I was before. So, I went back to my training. To overcome the fear growing inside me, I participated in the Gulf Women’s Sports Championship, where I finished second, but more importantly, I killed that fear. Today, I can say with confidence that I am still in the lead. Even if the injury pushed me one step behind, it does not mean that I lost. One of the things that bothered me during this time was that most of the people around me were not supportive of my decision to go back to playing. My biggest fear was my mother’s reaction. I did not want her to be against the idea too. However, my mother was supportive of my decision, but she advised me to be careful, just like any loving mother. All thanks to Allah, as the time passed, I made peace with what happened. If I continued to play that match, maybe I would have ended up with an injury that would permanently stop me from playing. Injuries are common in taekwondo. Even during the practice, if a player starts practicing with no warmup or practices without concentrating, they might get injured.
What lessons did playing sports taught you?
Sports have had a great impact on refining my personality. Before taekwondo, I was a hasty person, but I became more thoughtful and less reckless as I practiced the sport. Now, before taking any decision or step, I pause to think. Even my reactions became thoughtful. Moreover, it gave me great control over my emotions: I became more patient and less nervous. When we get back-to-back blows from the opponent, it might lead us to get angry, and in a moment of anger, take a step that might cause us injury. So, with practice, we become much calmer and less reactive to what agitates us. With time, these practices seeped into our daily life, even outside the game; I always discuss these benefits with others. Sometimes, I meet mothers who ask me if taekwondo can help their children with concentration. I always reply: Absolutely! Because taekwondo teaches you to function with high concentration while being under pressure.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Pursue the field you love despite the difficulties you may face, and never stop during your quest. Despite my injury, I overcame the pain and trauma, and I forced myself to continue playing because of my strong desire to succeed for Qatar and represent it on the international level.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.