Becoming a professional athlete is not an easy goal to achieve. It requires consistent practice and the ability to overcome loss and ignore unwarranted criticisms, which is particularly difficult given that an athlete’s win or loss happens in public. In this interview, we talk to Maha Abdulridha Falamarzi, a table tennis player for the Qatar national team, an electrical engineer, and the owner of multiple businesses. While she started her journey in sports as merely a hobby, she continues in it as a professional player participating in international tournaments. So, who is Maha Abdulridha Falamarzi?
I am a table tennis player for the Qatar national team, and I have been playing this sport for 17 years now. When it comes to academic education, I am a graduate of Qatar University with a degree in Electrical Engineering. I am currently working as an electrical engineer at Qatar Aluminium (Qatalum), and I also initiated a few business adventures. I wanted to focus my entire career on sports and dedicate all my time and effort to table tennis, but my parents insisted that I finish university and receive a degree. I believe that it is for the best if a sportsperson continues their education along with their career in sports. I do not think it would be a good idea for a person in Qatar to pursue only a career in sports, especially as a Qatari woman, as it may be easier to be a professional athlete elsewhere.
What led you to become a professional table tennis athlete?
I used to play tennis with my mother and aunt, and when I was in school, the school created a table tennis team, so I tried it, and I liked it very much. I felt that playing table tennis is easier than regular tennis because the latter requires more energy. Also, tennis is played on an outdoor court, so the player is under the mercy of the weather, which adds to its difficulty. But, at that time, I thought of table tennis as a hobby and nothing more. I only started to think of being a professional player after playing it for 5 or 6 years, especially after we won a Gulf championship; it was then that I decided to become a professional table tennis player.
Can you tell us about your training as a professional table tennis player?
Alhamdulillah, all the facilities and the accommodations that we need to train are all available in Qatar. In the beginning, we faced some difficulties with the coach because, whilst she was skilled at the sport, she was not a professional. However, we were able to acquire a new coach who was highly experienced and was aware of all the latest techniques in the game, and her experience made it easy for us to train. The national team consists of 5 players, and we train together or trained with the boys’ team that consists of players younger than us, and when we, as a team, started to achieve and win, we started participating in local and international training camps every summer. These training camps gave us opportunities to train with players from different countries. We often traveled to China as they have a specialized academy in table tennis with a hotel, a restaurant, and all the other facilities we may need. Participating in those training camps helped us a lot to improve. Being a good table tennis player requires daily training with other players. So, if I stopped practicing for one month, it would affect the way I play, and I would lose the organic connection that I have built with my racket through practice, so a table tennis player has to train daily, and sometimes even twice a day.
How was your experience participating in tournaments?
I would say that each tournament has its own flavor depending on the tournament itself and the country that is hosting it. The Gulf championships, for example, pose a unique challenge because the skills and the level that those players are at are very close. But Alhamdulillah, we were always successful in Gulf Championships, so either we would win first place or second place. But the experience is always different in the Arab Championship because the players are usually more experienced. I would say that the Egyptian players are currently the top players, along with Algerian and Tunisian players. In our beginnings, we did not win the highest ranks; for example, we would come in fourth place, but over time. With continuous training, we started winning third or second place, and one of the memories that I will never forget is our participation in the Arab Games in 2011. Because it was the first time that I won an Arab game in the pair category with my colleague Aya Majdi, that win was different because it was an Arab tournament hosted by Qatar. In 2016, I participated in individual matches in the Arab League, and I was able to reach the finals for the first time. It was a different feeling; it did not matter if I won or lost because reaching the final was a big achievement for me; I just wanted to reach the final. I lost that final, and it was a turning point for me. However, reaching the finals in Asian and international tournaments is very difficult, as the Asian and European players dedicate their whole life to their sport, and they participate in a lot of competitions in order to gain experience.
Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
One of the biggest challenges I face is coordinating and managing my time. There are moments when I feel nervous about my many tasks, even if they were simple tasks. One of the difficulties I faced while studying was getting leave permission if I had to travel for games. I had to go to every professor and ask for permission, and I had to explain to each one of them the necessity of my travel. Even when they allowed me to travel, they said that the lessons that I would miss would be my own responsibility. On top of that, they were counting the leave out of the number of days I was allowed to miss. Thankfully, the situation is different in my work, as they understand the nature of my job as a sportsperson, and they give me some days off if needed, and they only ask me for an official letter that states the reason for my travel. One of the challenges I face as a table tennis player is the lack of engagement and training with athletes of different levels because in order to train with players from different levels, we need to bring players from abroad, and the current situation does not facilitate that, so, we try to do our best and work with what we have.
Could you tell us about the businesses you have?
The first project I started was supplying electronic gaming equipment and Disney products, and it is a joint project between my friend and me. We started this project because of our love for these products, so we decided to import them to Qatar and sell them as a third supplier. But we are not focusing on this project right now. The other project that my business partner and I started is to be related to drinks and coffee, called Third Vibe. It is a home-based project that we are currently developing, and we thought about opening our own cafe in 2019, but we felt that the time was not right, and it was risky due to the increased number of coffee shops. Also, renting a shop would be pricey, and we did not want to open a cafe that would fail from the beginning. The project offers unique drinks and coffee. Third Vibe is running, and people can order our drinks through Talabat and Rafeeq.
Can you tell us about a turning point that you experienced in your life?
I used to be nervous and angry even outside the field. Table Tennis is a sport that may agitate and anger the player because the simplest change during the game may lead to a loss of points. It requires so much concentration to the point that you have to focus on the ball and how it is turning, as each ball has its unique way of turning. So, at the beginning of my career, I used to get angry to the point that I would break things. I am ashamed of those actions now, but I no longer do these things as a piece of advice changed everything. So, I was playing in an international tournament, and I lost the match, which made me very angry, and I threw a water bottle. Later, a woman from the officials came, and she just said to me that a professional player does not behave this way. The sentence that she said was very simple, but it affected me greatly and encouraged me to think about my actions. It was an important turning point for me as a professional player as I started working on controlling my anger and understanding that there is no need to be agitated because of a loss. With every competition, there is a winner or a loser, but just because you lost it does not mean that the journey ends there. Surely, there will be new opportunities to win in the future.
Did playing sports have any impact on you?
Sports has a huge impact on my personality, especially because it provided me with the opportunity to travel and meet players worldwide. So, I got to learn about different cultures and how to engage with others. I’m the only child in my family, which made me introverted, but by being in sports, I have interacted with people of different ages and backgrounds, like, officials, athletes, and celebrities. All these interactions have helped me improve and strengthen my personality and my way of speaking to others. It has also made me view life from a different perspective and greatly impacted my ambitions in life.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Be yourself and do not let people’s opinions and criticism stop you. Be active in the field you love, even if society thinks what you want is not suitable for women. Follow what you desire even if you feel it is too late to do it, just do it anyway, because you might be more experienced now, so your chances of succeeding in what you like might be better.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.