Monday, April 30, 2018

Year of Young People 2018: Dominique Zahra

Each month in 2018, to celebrate the Year of Young People in conjunction with the Scottish Government and Young Scot, Scottish Swimming is profiling an outstanding athlete from the world of aquatics. Last month it was diver Lucas Thomson (read his interview here), and before that it was para-swimmer and swim teacher Kayeligh Haggo, and you can watch her video here.

Edinburgh’s grey skies and the decidedly mild Scottish summers must feel a million miles away from the sun, sea and sand of of Naples, Florida, where Dominique Zahra grew up. Swapping the Gulf of Mexico for the Firth of Forth has been life changing for the 17-year-old Water Polo star, but he knows it’s been worth it.

Upon taking to the pool in Scotland, Zahra’s talent immediately shone, rising from an unknown foreign import to one of Scottish Water Polo’s brightest talents. By the age of 12 the hotshot was training with the senior men, and last year he represented Great Britain in the LEN European Junior Water Polo Championships Qualification Tournament. Most recently, he has just signed a contract with Otters Aquatics Club of Malta (he holds dual Maltese nationality) to compete in their Summer League.

“From the sunshine state to the sunshine of Malta via Scotland, that’s pretty good!” he jokes. “If you asked me four or five years ago if I ever thought I could make something out of this sport I would’ve said you’re mad. It’s pretty amazing that a career could come out of it, after all when I joined the first thing on my mind was making friends and getting the friends I had to join with me.”

Zahra will up sticks and move to Malsanforn on Gozo, the second largest island (after Malta itself) on the Maltese archipelago. He’ll compete in the Summer League for two and a half months, and said he can barely contain his excitement.

Earlier this month, Zahra was an integral part of the Caledonia Water Polo U19 Boys squad that made history at the Swim England National Age Group Championships (NAGS) in Manchester. Zahra took home the MVP Award and the Top Scorer prize as Caledonia became the first Scottish team in history to win the U19 NAGS title, and the first Scottish side to win any trophy at those Championships in eight years.

And as if that wasn’t enough, he followed up those achievements by captaining his Warrender WPC U18 team to victory in the Willie Mellor Cup.

Zahra said: “The main feeling was just of shock, the shock of winning, obviously because it’s the first time a Scottish team has won the British Cup [in the U19 Age Group]. To win the MVP Award and Top Scorer was the cherry on top.”

Contrast that shock of winning to the shock of touching down on Scottish soil as a nine-year old, alien not only to Scotland’s actual climate, but to its athletic climate too. Lifting a trophy, albeit in historic fashion, probably pales in comparison to assimilating oneself to a sporting landscape largely dominated by football and rugby. And while it’s widespread common knowledge that Scotland invented the modern game of golf, it comes as a surprise to many when they learn that Water Polo was also born in Scotland, in the waters of the River Dee.

The sport of Water Polo, just like swimming, is continuing to grow in Scotland however. Caledonia’s U19 Boys being crowned NAG Champions was coupled with their U17s winning the Plate competition, underlining the evidence of the sport’s development. Zahra has had first-hand experience of that, and is happy to see the sport going from strength to strength and confident that it can keep going.

“We’ve got the talent to compete now, without doubt,” he said. “We can compete with England and the other European countries if we keep growing the coaching and improving the training, just as we have since I started playing here.

“From coaching to strategic advice to motivation, all the coaches I know have been totally key to helping me and everyone else get better.”

Zahra’s coach at Warrender is Neal Rayner, and he has marvelled at his progress.

He said: “‘Domma’, the name he goes by in training, made an impact on the men’s game almost immediately and as a 12-year-old that’s pretty unheard of. He trains hard and has established himself as a very versatile player.”

That versatility was one of the reasons he picked up the MVP Award in Manchester, along with his eight goals the semis and the final. Caledonia beat the holders City of Sheffield in the semi-final to set up a final against Sedgefield, who knocked out the hosts, City of Manchester. It was against the odds that both teams made the final, and it’s when the odds are against him that Zahra feels he thrives. After all, you don’t come from a foreign country and take a sport by storm if you don’t perform well under pressure.

Zahra flashed back to the rollercoaster game that led to him and his team being crowned champions:

“We finished the first quarter 3-1 down so that was obviously a big shock. We picked up traction in the second and third quarters and then in the fourth I scored the goal to help us break away 7-6, with three minutes to go.

“And then Ben Scott got the final goal to make it 8-6 with a minute left and that was when I thought the deal was finally sealed.”

There are probably many lessons Zahra learned on that weekend alone. We asked him to put into words what he’s gained out of the sport of Water Polo in general, and why he’d encourage others to take it up.

“Arguably it’s the toughest sport in the world. You can learn more from Water Polo than any other sport. You’ll find the most inner strength. For example, when you’re putting every last breath into competing right until the end of that final quarter or when you’re disciplining yourself to be able to swim and play as fast as you can.

“The qualities you can learn about yourself from Water Polo can translate into any walk of life.”