“There is now a generation of girls growing up with the possibility of women competing in the Olympics.”
Words and photography by Sarah Attar.
In 2012, I became the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in track and field at the Olympics. My route to the games was definitely atypical; it was something I never had anticipated — even a year prior to the 2012 games. My family in Saudi Arabia knew that I was a runner, and through some conversations with acquaintances, my name got included in the mix of potential athletes to send. I did not qualify, but rather was invited by the International Olympic Committee to participate. It was crazy, though; this official invitation came only about six weeks before the opening ceremony. This was the first year Saudi Arabia sent female athletes — two of us, to be exact — and it was an honour to take part alongside Wojdan Shaherkani.
Competing in the London Olympics was definitely an intimidating endeavour. I was all of a sudden on stage to a global audience and in the midst of both praise and criticism. It was also incredibly short notice, but ultimately there was no question about whether or not I would do it. It was an unknown venture into something much bigger than myself, something that I am still wrapping my head around. This experience was unlike any other; it was almost otherworldly to be at the Olympics, somewhere I never thought I’d find myself. While it was impossible to know what type of impact my participation would have exactly, I knew that it was a positive undertaking. I was going for the women in Saudi Arabia, for all the young girls to have someone in the Olympics representing them, giving them a picture of something they could one day strive for.
It’s always pretty fascinating to look back to particular experiences and see how they were quite a catalyst in our lives. My participation in the London Olympic Games has allowed me to connect with others in the sport and community in such incredible ways. While visiting family in Saudi Arabia, I had the opportunity to speak at my cousins’ all-girls’ school. It was incredible to see their excitement for athletics and experience first-hand how I made an impact on their lives. I’ve also landed a sponsorship deal with the women’s running apparel company, Oiselle, because of my influence in the sport. Sharing my story has connected me to people globally, which is pretty amazing. Platforms such as Women’s Running, Runner’s World and Competitor have all featured me to some extent, and I think that just speaks for the power of my participation. This experience has allowed me to pursue running full-time, as I am currently living and training in Mammoth Lakes, California.
The most powerful thing I have observed about our participation in the 2012 games is that there is now a generation of Saudi Arabian girls growing up with the possibility of women competing in the Olympics. They see sports and athletic competition as something they can strive towards, and that is incredibly powerful. We definitely created new perspectives.
Although I competed in the 800m in London, I love long-distance running. The marathon is such a beautiful challenge and I am really diving into marathon training to see what I am capable of at this distance.
I’ve always been drawn to longer distances. Some of my favourite sights have been seen on runs and I love that I was able to get to those places on my own two feet. There is something so wonderful about the reflection that comes from being deep in nature, miles out on a trail, pushing your own physical limits. While in college I got the urge to run my first marathon — I chose the Big Sur International Marathon and it was hard not to fall in love with the distance. The marathon is such a delicate balance of patience, persistence, and pushing yourself, and I love the big build-ups in training. I also love the community in running, especially in the marathon. It’s incredible to see people of all levels from around the world come together and run the same route, accomplishing their goals. My second marathon was the 2013 Boston Marathon and, after what took place there, I found myself even more connected to this distance, and more drawn to how it brings people together to overcome anything.
I currently train under the guidance of Coach Andrew Kastor with the Mammoth Track Club. It’s been incredible to train with such an elite group. Just from witnessing their daily routines, to hearing training perspectives and philosophies, to building more relationships through this sport, the impact has been incredibly meaningful.
I’m also part of the Oiselle team. I met Sally Bergesen, the CEO and founder of Oiselle, at [US long-distance runner] Kara Goucher’s retreat in August 2014. There was instant and mutual admiration about the sport and the strides each of us had made to encourage and inspire others. We kept in touch afterwards about potential projects and it was only natural to take that next step to join the team. This has been incredibly profound and meaningful to me. Sally has built such an incredible community through Oiselle and it has really given me a platform and means to connect with so many people in such a positive and encouraging way.
As far as my next target is concerned, I am really dedicating myself to marathon training to see what I am capable of in that distance. I love running. Training in Mammoth has been a dream come true and I am excited to see where it takes me.
When you put yourself into grand landscapes and positive environments, amazing things can happen
I’ve always been pretty creative and I loved the idea of pursuing that creativity more seriously in college, so I majored in art. I love the tangible aspect of art and also the newer digital experiences. After taking a graphic design class I was kind of hooked, and continue to undertake freelance design projects. I also really fell in love with photography. It’s been such an incredible joy to document and share my experiences. I also had the opportunity to work closely with one of my professors on a research project through an undergraduate grant. In this project I really dived into my experience in the London Olympics, and it was incredibly powerful to reflect on this in a visual way that made sense to me. This project actually got picked up recently and exhibited internationally.
Running for me is definitely about my interaction with the world, and where I run has a lot to do with that. I’ve always been amazed by where my own feet can take me. It’s a beautiful dialogue, my own physical engagement with the land around me, and I’ve become thoroughly interested in the documentation of that interaction. Being in Mammoth for the past few months has been incredibly inspiring, and I have found myself really working on my personal photography to better share the places I get to experience daily.
It’s a beautiful dialogue, my own physical engagement with the land around me
I’ve often felt that running is my medium of sorts in the arts, and that my documentation of it is how I share the experience. While working on one of my projects in college, I kept coming back (and still do) to the artist Richard Long. He is known for his documented long walks in nature. His work is then a response to the environments he walked in, emphasising the trace we leave on the land through our interaction with it. On his website he states that he undertakes: “simple creative acts of walking and marking about place, locality, time, distance, and measurement.” This makes a lot of sense in regards to running, especially with our GPS watches and various ways of tracking what we do. Running feels quite creative to me, and there’s a certain inventive magic that happens out in nature. Running and art, and running as art, are incredibly expressive while also very introspective. They are ways of sharing bits of ourselves with the world while also interpreting our surroundings in a very personal way. I love exploring the interaction and overlap between the two and am excited to see where that exploration takes me.
Sarah Attar is a creative mind inspired by the world and curious about where her own two feet can take her. www.sarahattar.com
This story originally featured in print in Issue #7 of Like the Wind Magazine. Like the Wind magazine is produced for runners, by runners. 100 pages of stories, beautiful images and artwork.
Like the Wind Issue #7 cover art by Vincent Dogna.