By Alya Alghamdi
Every fire begins with a single flame — mine was ignited with the thought of freedom. Growing up, I always knew there was something more for me. My sisters and I would talk often about what we wanted to be when we matured. They would mention their dreams to have a family and own a house, and I would simply reply, “I want to be on top of the world!”
Despite having a privileged childhood in Saudi Arabia, I longed for a life far beyond what material goods could provide because my fulfillment came from a deeper place — a place of purpose. As I grew, the flame burning inside spread like wildfire, consuming me. I knew my purpose was to burn bright, but the world in which I existed sought to extinguish that. It became clear that my journey to live as my true self would not be an easy one. Still, I decided at an early age that instead of letting my circumstances hold me back, I would redefine them to reflect the reality I wanted to live in.
At that time, I had no idea I would one day pursue athletics professionally. My potential as an athlete went untapped for many years due to the fact that Saudi Arabia did not allow women to go to the gym or join sports teams. It was simply unacceptable for a female to participate in any kind of physical activity. Still, this couldn’t and wouldn’t stop me from dreaming, hoping and impatiently waiting.
Foregoing the arranged marriage that is expected of Saudi Arabian women, I made the unfortunate discovery that my best chance at gaining freedom would come at the expense of leaving my family and my home. Still, I was determined to keep my fire burning, so I left for Europe. I chose my destiny to be a free human being, and that came with a lot of losses, but my gains far outweigh those costs.
In Europe, I was able to discover my true passion — running. I spent the majority of my time exploring new physical activities like long distance running, surfing, hiking and competing in marathons. The simple freedom of putting on your shoes in the morning and doing whatever you wanted to do was a completely new concept to me and I promised myself I would never take it for granted.
Staying true to my childhood pipe dreams and capitalizing on my new found freedom, I set my sights on making it to the top of the world – Mount Everest. This was one of the most difficult but rewarding things I have ever done, and it was just as treacherous, unwelcoming, and life-changing as one would imagine. By definition, the environment was inhospitable. Temperatures were below freezing, there was no running water and any water packed for the trip was frozen still. When you are placed in such a life-threatening position, suddenly, all you can think about is how much you want to live. That trip really opened my eyes to what was truly important in life — love and passion. For some people, they find those things in raising a child, but for me, I found it in my sport.
It was not long after my return from Mount Everest that Saudi Arabia’s Olympic Committee extended an invitation for me to take part in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Physically I had reached the top of the world, but professionally, the Olympics became my new Mount Everest. Working with Olympic royalty Michael Johnson, I dedicated my entire life to training, thinking, dreaming and speaking only of the Olympics. Then, three weeks out from the games, my offer to compete was rescinded by Saudi Arabia due to a culturally based decision that had nothing to do with my ability as an athlete. This was earth-shattering for me. I had dedicated everything to training for this opportunity, to represent my country and make them proud, and in a flash, it was gone! I spiraled into a depression and my soul felt hollow where my fire used to burn.
My coach saw the internal anguish and he told me I was left with only two choices — go home or try again. With my options laid bare, the outcome became increasingly clear. I knew this was not the end of my Olympic journey and my fire once again started to burn. Picking up right where I left off, I trained vigorously for the 2020 Olympics, breaking the record for the 60-meter dash. I am also working toward breaking the 100 and 200-meter, which I am confident I can achieve with my abilities, as well as coach’s confidence in me. But my dreams becoming a reality were once again postponed, this time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I now have my sights set on carrying my country’s flag at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
However, to be clear, the Olympics are not my endgame. Once the games are in my rearview, I plan on starting a mentorship program and non-profit foundation for young Saudi Arabian female athletes to provide them with the support and resources I did not have during my training journey. Ultimately, I’m not here to break a record, I’m here to show women they can accomplish anything, even with just a single flame.