For the first time in two years, Nawaal Akram was able experience what it felt like to “walk” after she enrolled in a swimming program for people with disabilities.
“I had been in a wheelchair, and then I could ‘walk’ again in the water. It was empowering,” the 17-year-old Qatar resident recalled.
Akram, who used to swim before muscular dystrophy forced her to become wheelchair-bound, has been taking classes with the Doha-based Freestyle Aquatics since 2014.
More recently, she began training with them to obtain her scuba diving certificate.
She is one of hundreds of people who have relied on the center to stay in shape, gain confidence and overcome challenges.
However, Freestyle Aquatics now faces its own obstacles – namely, finding the resources to meet demand for its services.
Four years ago, Freestyle Aquatics began offering special swimming and diving training for people with disabilities.
Founder Kathleen Bates said some 400 Qatar residents have used the program since, including those with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spinal bifida, as well as those who are blind and have spinal injuries as a result of car accidents.
Though its swimming and diving training sessions have proved popular, Bates said finding a regular, suitable pool for the classes has been difficult.
“We’ve been using a private pool in Al Waab, and we travel around Qatar. But I would like to find a permanent base to operate from – one that’s suitable for special needs and which is accessible for our swimmers.”
Bates, who has a separate day job, offers scuba training at the center twice a week, while coach Jojo Musa leads swimming lessons three times a week.
The classes are open to adults and children ages four years old and up.
One of the center’s milestone moments came after training Ghanim Al Muftah, a Qatari teenager whose public struggle to overcome his disabilities have helped make him a household name.
After three years, Ghanim became the first certified disabled Qatari scuba diver and made his inaugural dive in Egypt last October.
“We were quietly working with Ghanim and his siblings for around three years, training him to get his scuba certificate. Then we traveled with him and his family to do his first dive, which was an amazing experience,” Bates told Doha News.
Meanwhile, for Akram, swimming lessons have helped her get fit and regain the sense of mobility that she lost in 2012 when she began using a wheelchair.
Not exercising for two years “really affected my health – my weight increased by about 30kg. I tried to find places to train but nowhere would take me. I felt dejected,” Akram told Doha News.
Then she heard about Freestyle Aquatics.
“That first lesson, my mum saw me ‘walk’ in the water and swim again for the first time in two years. It was motivating and a stunning experience,” she said.
Akram has also now started pool training for her scuba diving certificate and is hoping to persuade her family to allow her to dive in open water.
“My parents are scared for me, although they really trust me with Kathleen. I’ve loved it. It’s easy to move about and to breath – I’ve found it easier than swimming,” Akram said.
The experience has also helped her to realize that she can set – and meet – new challenges, and overcome expectations about what she should be able to achieve.
“The (scuba) lessons showed me that is is possible to try and do new things, regardless of my disability. I never thought I could do scuba diving. I thought things like that were impossible for me,” she added.
As the center’s reputation grows with rave reviews from people like Akram and Ghanim, Bates said she regularly has to turn down requests for lessons due to a lack of resources.
This is why she would like to expand, she added.
“There is a need for this in Qatar. My phone rings every day with people asking about us. Families need us, but we have teaching ratios of 1:1 or 2:1 so we can only take a limited number of students.”
The scuba diver is now looking to collaborate with an existing organization in Qatar to help expand the programs.
More information on Freestyle Aquatics can be found on their Facebook page here.