Fireworks shot off around the world, resolutions were made, people cheered to a new decade that, by the nature of its sound, was packed with promise.
It sounded so futuristic, so distant, so full of hope. It was the year that sci-fi authors used to denote a faraway time, when cars would fly and life on earth would be fully automated.
And then suddenly, everything stopped.
It’s been an unstable, traumatic year, one fraught with pain, loss, and catastrophe. One bad headline tripped on the heels of another, until this hopeful sounding year became synonymous with crisis. Few could have predicted the simultaneous chaos and quiet caused by the pandemic. Our lives were uprooted, our streets were still. Life became a series of moments punctuated by gazing out of windows, watching numbers of the infected rise, seeing anguish play out on our screens.
If you got goosebumps when watching Nike’s incredible ‘You Can’t Stop Sport’ campaign video above, you’re not alone. In less than two minutes, this inspiring video reminded us that no matter what fate befalls us, the human spirit can’t be stopped. It’s indomitable, indefatigable, unsinkable. Within the moments of desperation, life adapted, we got used to things we never thought we would get used to, we found freedom in the small things. In the water, there is weightlessness, infinite kinetic potential, joy.
In the spirit of the unstoppable, there is no one who embodies the concept quite like Manal Rostom. As a young woman, she witnessed an unspeakable tragedy that changed her whole life and way of thinking. This singular moment came to define a movement, and that movement spread to the world. In founding Surviving Hijab, Rostom found the encouragement to broach a major subject with one of the world’s biggest brands. Why hasn’t anyone made athleticwear for the hijabi woman? She asked this to Nike, and they, to their tremendous credit, answered. Rostom soon became an ambassador for the brand, was designated a Nike Coach, and was given an even bigger platform for bringing her inspirational message to the masses.
Today, she is regarded as one of the most influential athletes in the Arab world, and has joined Nike in its new ‘You Can’t Stop Sport’ campaign, which coincides perfectly with Dubai Fitness Challenge 2020. Her message, like Nike’s video, are profound. “I am channeling the unstoppable mindset that the campaign is rallying to inspire other women to push through,” she told us in the exclusive interview below. Listen in as we talk about her many firsts (and you’ll have to read to the end for a potential last), her views on championing women’s rights, and of course, the amazing Nike ‘You Can’t Stop Sport’ campaign of which she is a vital part.
What does being part of the Nike family mean to you? What do you hope people take away from learning about your journey?
Being part of the Nike family is the dream. I never dreamt so big, to be honest. I think I was just passionate enough about my dreams and goals, and then the world took note. I didn’t plan it and never even imagined I could represent such a giant brand – it’s a HUGE honor, blessing, and responsibility that I take very seriously.
Beyond the massive success of this brand, I am truly honored to partner up with an entity that is so committed to representing the unrepresented. The brand’s influential platform has given me and many other modest female athletes a voice, an image, and access to the world of sport. It has truly set the standard for other brands to really take stock and reevaluate their inclusivity model. I hope that people will look at me and see how ordinary I am, the girl next door who was able to set dreams for herself, made waves, and the world took note. Nobody can help you if you don’t help yourself. You’ve got to get out there — sweat, blood, and tears — but it’’ll be worth it. The key lesson is that it’s always your passion and your heart that will truly set you apart.
Nike has truly set the standard for other brands to really take stock and reevaluate their inclusivity model.
When did you first fall in love with running? And what is it about swimming that draws you to it?
I remember falling in love with long-distance running in high school, when I started training for my first 400m race for sports day. I would stay after school and just do laps and sprints. When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I remember feeling absolutely incredible, and I don’t think I ever stopped running since. I was also on the Track & Field team and started competing with other schools, which gave me an adrenaline rush that I can’t describe. The cheers, the stadium and being on the track birthed these feelings that are truly indescribable, and keep me coming back for more.
I think the fact that I still run brings back this rush that leaves that connection with my inner child and little girl inside me. As for swimming, it was born in Kuwait. Every Friday was beach day, and I don’t remember a Friday in Kuwait where I wasn’t on the beach swimming or building castles in the sand. We spent summers in Egypt in the Red Sea; I learned how to swim at the age of eight and became a certified scuba diver at the age of 30. I used to lie to my little niece (she’s not little anymore) and tell her that I’m a mermaid because I was always in the water.
Your hijab is your choice. What went into the decision to wear hijab, and what does it mean to you?
I had an accident at the age of 19 where I swapped seats five minutes before an accident with my cousin en route to Hurghada in the Red Sea from Cairo. My cousin broke two bones in his spine and was paralyzed on the spot. He passed away three months later. Nothing happened to me. I think seeing your life flash before you like you hear in the movies, and then seeing someone lose their life when it could have been you, made me dig into my relationship with God. I started learning about the Hijab in secret. It made sense to me. I wanted to say thank you to God for saving me, and giving me a second chance in life.
My dad was against it as he didn’t like it personally and warned me it would be a one-way ticket. I was up for the challenge. It has been 19 years and I am still going against all odds.
What prompted you to launch Surviving Hijab? When you started it, did you expect it to grow as fast as it did?
I thought of removing my hijab in 2014 as I was tired of the stereotyping, the discrimination, and never found someone who looked like me that could fight the fight with me. Before removing it, I thought I would set up a closed online platform for women to seek help if they need to vent when hardships hit.
As selfish as this will sound, I initially set it up to receive support. However, the exponential growth that the page received was shocking and overwhelming at the same time. I added 70 girls by hand on August 24th, 2014. Today we are a whopping 925,000 women from all around the world with the hopes of hitting one million followers by the end of the year, Inshallah!
When you first emailed Nike about hijab representation, what was the motivation? Did you expect a response?
The motivation was a 40,000+ online community that was calling for the same needs – international representation and recognizing a huge market gap in sports and in other aspects of society in general. I definitely did not expect anything, and thought it would hit someone’s junk mail, or someone who would look at my message and think ‘who is this random person with crazy ideas’? I still remember my screams when I saw the email from Tom Woolf — Nike Coach at the time — asking for a time to meet.
What are some of the elements of running in a hijab that most people don’t think about?
The multiple layers, the need to endure the heat and still continue to perform to your utmost ability, the lack of availability of nice-looking, hijab-friendly clothes (long sleeves and modest add-ons to cover your hips, etc.). With the revolution in modest wear with the launch of the Nike ‘Pro Hijab’ and the modest line catering for women by Nike, I feel like the journey has been facilitated tremendously. You now have different colors, different styles, and you can land the most awesome look!
How did Nike improve upon those needs with its Nike ‘Pro Hijab’?
I love the variety and the inclusivity that you can now see in stores and in campaigns worldwide. It’s so inspiring to see a brand embrace a minority group the way Nike does and inspire so many other brands to follow suit along the way. Their most recent modest swimwear launch, ‘Victory Swim’, is also indicative of their commitment to inclusive design. I can’t wait to see what they’ll have in store in the future.
You are representative of the third-culture kid concept. What is it like bridging these worlds, and not only experiencing and living in these different cultures, but also advocating for women’s rights along the way?
It’s a curse and a blessing to be a third-culture kid. The curse is you will always feel like you are facing an identity crisis and feel like you don’t belong to any particular culture. Am I Kuwaiti? Am I Egyptian? Am I British? The blessing is that you get to be open to other cultures and I feel like it strengthens you as you become a citizen of the world. I try to make peace with it although I feel like it impacts things like being able to find a partner, for example, that will be able to truly understand all those sides.
Advocating for women’s rights came by chance. I didn’t sign up for this role. I just never found someone else doing it, and I think subconsciously I decided that this person should be me. They say when the world doesn’t give you a leader you go off and become one.
They say when the world doesn’t give you a leader you go off and become one.
You have so many historical firsts to your names, it’s incredible! Are you ever frustrated by the fact that in the 21st century there are still so many “firsts” for women to achieve?
I don’t think it frustrates me as much as it surprises me. When I first started everything that I’m doing, I had no idea I would ever be the first anything. It came as a big surprise and I had to adapt to the feelings and the pressure that come with these titles. All of a sudden, you are in the spotlight that you never planned for, and you need to adapt and learn quickly on how to behave, respond, and above all, deal with online critics.
I am honored to have left a name in my favorite sports and I hope I can continue to do that if it’s going to help other girls pave their way in their choice of sports, even though no one else has done it before. And when they decide to pursue this path, I hope they remember that just because no one else has done it before, it doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be you!
What are your plans for the upcoming Dubai Fitness Challenge 2020 (DFC 2020), and the coinciding Nike ‘You Can’t Stop Sport’ campaign?
I’m going to work as hard as I can to embed the ‘You Can’t Stop Us’ spirit this season. I’m currently dealing with a stubborn achilles injury that keeps flaring and keeps siding me from running. However, as strange as it can be, this injury came at the right time. Despite this injury, I am channeling the unstoppable mindset that the campaign is rallying to inspire other women to push through.
This isn’t to say that you should ignore your healing process – as this should always remain a priority. Pushing through means not allowing any mental barriers to bring you down and make you question your capability to train. Through this groundbreaking campaign, I want to show women how they can persevere despite the roadblocks. I am deeply passionate about this campaign, and I really think it’s going to make DFC 2020 extremely special.
What ways can women use sports to empower themselves?
Sports make you feel stronger physically and mentally in general. I think the combination of serotonin and strength that comes with working out boosts your confidence. Confidence gives you a voice and helps you stand out, whether it’s with your performance or achievements. Sports saved my life!
What goals are you setting for yourself in 2021?
On a water sports level, I am hoping to master wake surfing, learning how to kite surf for my birthday (currently en route to a kitesurfing school in Gouna), and hopefully complete my 200-hour Yoga certification to become a Stand Up Paddling Yoga instructor. I already got certified as an indoor lifeguard last summer, so I’m hoping that I’m one step closer to my dream.
I’m planning two main marathons as well: The Polar Circle Marathon in sub zero degree weather in April 2021, and the Tokyo Marathon. This will be my last marathon major, and is set for October 2021. I simply can’t wait. This one will be ultimately special as I might announce my retirement from marathon distance races after this last one – nothing set in stone yet.