The Malta Independent 26 May 2019, Sunday

The one-for-all - an exclusive interview with local athlete Antonella Chouhal

Raymond Scicluna Friday, 26 April 2019, 10:00 Last update: about 30 days ago

The spotlight today is on Antonella Chouhal, a 43-year-old mother of 2 children: Sarah, a 16-year-old short sprinter and hammer thrower and Kareem, 3 years younger and savouring mainly the throws plus short sprints. She is married to Rachid; an Olympian, who still competes locally and abroad in the Masters with respectable results. She is the founder of athletic club Rush AC, a new but emerging club who last season was on the verge to win the Club's league title against the mighty of by far a bigger club. Her expertise is Hammer and discus throws.  Apart from confirming herself as National Champion for many years in a row and being the current NR holder of Shot Put, Discus and Hammer, she is coaching a new rejuvenating number of athletes whose performances are perpetually gaining strength. Antonella works with the Enemalta public liability company as Senior Professional Executive. Antonella is also a council member of the MAAA. Pluri decorated with countless medals won both locally and at International level. Antonella, distinctive, ambitious but a highly committed person where the title: One-for-all really pays her justice.

1. Antonella, I tried to be as brief as possible in detailing your biography but it would have been unfair on you leaving out certain details. In a nutshell, you are a full-time employee, wife, mother of 2, running an Athletic Club, athlete, coach and a council member of the MAAA. I am curious to know how do you manage to fulfil all these demanding roles on daily basis? Each role has been ongoing now for years, so you are used to it but it's still interesting for many people to know how is this all possible?

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First of all, thank you for the opportunity given by this interview to share my story and give the public an insight to my life. While it is true that I lead a very busy life, my time management makes it possible for me to fulfil all my commitments and tasks. Proper time management is crucial to me, as without planning ahead I would not be able to do all the things I do today. To tell you the truth, sometimes it all becomes quite stressful and I ask myself why I try to do it all but at the end of the day, my tenacious character would not allow me to quit on any of my tasks. I am also a busybee, which is another reason for my motivation and drive.  I entered the MAAA council to try to make changes that would be of benefit for future athletes and thus find an easier path in front of them.  It is very difficult to change what has been the same for so many years. However, unless you commit yourself to go out of your comfort zone, things won't change.

 

2. Antonella, your daughter Sarah, happened to be my initial inspiration to fulfil my bucket list which is unveiling the person and personality behind the athlete. These interviews are totally different from the usual sports stereotype which we are all accustomed to. Sarah did a fine job and I am sure her revealed story was emotional and inspirational to many. You are the mum of a gifted daughter who excels equally in both academics and sports. It goes without saying that such a gifted girl needs persistent support.  As she admitted, she is a perfectionist by nature so she's demanding on you and the family. This year is crucial for Sarah since she is sitting for her O Levels. Nevertheless, Sarah still has some upcoming international meets where she qualified, and it will be a great opportunity to widen her already international exposure. My question is this and can be easily related to Kareem too, who is enjoying athletics too. Nowadays, preaching to children is almost useless, leading by example is the way forward. How much do you think that your children were influenced and allured to delve deeper into athletics by you and your husband? The victories, high emotions, the building hype prior to the competition, the atmosphere inside the stadium and various experiences both locally and abroad might have left a positive mark on the kids...

I think having both parents in your same sport can be both a blessing and a curse. Fortunately, in my case it ended positively but in the beginning, it definitely was not easy. While it is true that one leads by example, at first both of my kids didn't enjoy training and the demanding nature of athletics alongside academics. However, they quickly adapted and started to genuinely enjoy the sport and I am grateful that both me and my husband left such a positive impact on our children. Obviously, we still face some struggles, one of them being the fact that our kids feel pressure to make us proud and prove themselves in the sport. Sarah for instance, wants to be as much of a success as her father in athletics and she puts a lot of pressure on herself to reach those standards. Kareem wants to make me proud and become an excellent thrower and breaks records as I do. The struggle is trying to convince them that we are proud of them no matter what they do and they would not be any less of athletes if they meet with failure. Failing is normal, but getting up and persevering is the true spirit of athletics and that is what me and my husband try to teach our kids. We have been in their shoes, so we know the feeling of wanting to be the best.

 

3. Antonella, as an athlete you roamed quite a few athletic clubs from St. Patricks, Zurrieq, Pembroke and Libertas but it seemed you still aimed for more. You are ambitious and insatiable, but I reckon you want things to be done in a different way. In fact, some years ago, you founded a new athletic club Rush AC. Being an MAAA council member like you, setting up a new club requires so much time, dedication, knowledge, energy, compliance to MAAA structures etc.... Now the club is paving way in many different events varying from throws, jumps, short sprints, long sprints and middle distance. I reckon that the weakest link so far is the long distance, yet your club is organising an annual Safi 5k which is popular to many. Last year being the third edition attracted over 400 athletes which I dare say it was an enormous success! Such organisation is intriguing, where it demands logistics, sponsors and marketing.  What are the ambitions of the club, the strengths and the weaknesses? What do you want to see improved in your club?

Founding Rush AC was the best thing that I have ever done, although to tell you the truth it was my husband's idea. At first, I was very reluctant to do it since it involved, as you said, a lot of work and commitment.  Today, I dare say I wish we gave birth to Rush AC sooner. As you said, I roamed from one club to another but stuck with AS Libertas for over a decade prior to opening our club.  It is true that I want things in athletics done in a different way since being an athlete myself, I know what the athlete really needs and wants. Before Rush AC, my word or my suggestions were useless because unfortunately not all administrators that manage clubs understand athletics as a whole, merely their own interests only. We started the club almost 3 years ago and our forte are the sprints, jumps and throws. Long distance is not our weakest link however we don't go roaming for athletes to join our club so to date, no long distance runner has come to embark with us on our adventure. However, this might change.  The Safi 5k was a task we had to accomplish in order to generate some funds for the club, in order to give back to our athletes in many ways.  Behind the Safi 5k, there is a large amount of work and I must say it is not all my doing. I manage the event but I have a lot of help from our committee members and friends that give so much more than a helping hand.  The Safi local council  also helps us immensely in this event since they are very committed and diligent in their work. From here, I must thank the Mayor Johan Mula who does the impossible to help any initiative that can brighten the village.  Obviously, Safi was chosen as a venue since it is my birth town so it holds a special place in my heart.  Regarding the ambitions of the club , we do not have ambitions for the club but we do have ambitions for our champions since at the end of the day the club is about the athletes. All we want is to give our athletes our best knowledge to succeed and reach their targets. If we do that, it will be a success by itself.  The strength of the club is quite obvious; it is a family-run club and we treat our athletes as family, we choose quality over quantity and that is the key. We are not there for money but to make future athletes.  The weakness is the same thing as our strength, since sometimes, as in every family, you have the black sheep, those who think that they can achieve great success by using short cuts or those that want the process of becoming a good athlete overnight. The fact is, as we both know, athletics is not like that.  Athletics is like an iceberg. Everyone sees the tip but there is an enormous base supporting it, even if blind to the naked eye. Regarding improvement, we wish to have more adequate facilities to train in so that we can be able to give our utmost and reach our full potential.

4.  In a hectic life, where the daily talk of the town is that people are finding more difficult to cope with every day's demands and needs. You on the other hand, manage to cope with the endless daily tasks. I hate repeating, but I must recall that you are a mum of two children to cater for, a husband-athlete, your house chores, your working career, your training and coaching. Needless to say, that your timetable should be tight by default.  Most of the times, I am eye witness at Marsa track where you and your athletes are there as early as 15hrs and stay there till early evening.  I assume that post training and coaching session you have other house chores to do. Do you find help from your children and husband? Do you panic with such demanding daily schedule or by now you are used to it? To top it all every Tuesday all year round, you have to attend for the weekly MAAA council meeting where you spend not less than 3 hours. How do you feel at the end of the day? Accomplished or drained?

My schedule is very tight and it runs like a clock, it is prepared in such a way as not to lose any minute of my day since that would mean leaving something out. As previously said, I have that type of character that results in rarely finding me sitting down doing nothing. For example, sometimes I try to do multiple tasks at once like weekly meal planning etc.  Fortunately, since we are all an athletic family, menus are very simple and more on the healthy side so those meals take less time to prepare. My husband does help me especially with kids and anything in the house, since luckily he knows how to fix most problems that pop up every now and then.  Regarding house chores, my mum, who is a pensioner, helps me once a week, however the daily tasks I do myself. The worst day is, as said, Tuesday since apart from all; I need to attend the lengthy MAAA meeting.  After this, I feel both accomplished and drained. On one hand. I feel drained since it would have been a very long day, starting at 6 am in the morning, without having time to sit down and have a proper dinner. On the other hand, it would be an accomplishment since I would have contributed to giving a voice to the athletes and athletics. I am in the council to try to better athletics and how it is managed. As you know, it is not the easiest task to break the stigma. They say perseverance is key, so we will keep trying and ultimately I am sure we will succeed.

5. Pursuing on the same theme. Antonella, can you describe a week in your life highlighting your duties and chores you have to face and do on weekly basis? I reckon you are rigid on time management.

My week is roughly always the same; going to work, running home to prepare essentials for dinner, going to the track to coach and training, most days doing double sessions myself.  Then, I return home and prepare for the next day. I usually sleep around 5 hours a day so sometimes that is quite draining. However, I got used to it. I must say that I am lucky that all my family is in athletics, since we are all together at the track nearly at the same time albeit doing different things and return home together so we understand each other more. It would be difficult for example having a husband that is not interested in athletics and would not be bothered by me being at the track for at least 5 hours daily.  SportMalta is also a huge help for me in my day to day life with balancing my work and athletics, as when I do double sessions, SportMalta gives me hours from the government's Flexi training scheme to be able to do my double sessions.  I also wish to take the opportunity to thank SR Trek (Go and fun) and Eurosport who help me in my preparation because without them it would be more difficult to achieve my goals

6. As a founder of Rush Athletic Club, and an active member, three years down its inception how do you feel about such an ambitious project? I admit that Rush AC has become one healthy family and where its athletes show high commitment to the club's demands irrespective of their events. It shows a great sense of belonging even though the club is relatively new. The club is thriving in terms of numbers and performances but were you so confident that your club would attract new athletes, prospective ones but even established ones? What did you imagine in terms of member numbers which ultimately are the existence of any club? How was it difficult to establish itself?

I think I can proudly say that Rush AC is one of the biggest successes in terms of new clubs in Malta. As said, our club is a family-run club so its aims and targets thus far have been more than achieved.  To give the public an insight, on the first year Rush AC came 2nd in both men and women's clubs' leagues. In the second year, that is last year, we won the boys' youth clubs league with just 5 youths, came 2nd in both the men's and women's clubs' leagues (in the latter we just missed the clubs league victory by a mere 3 points). This shows how versatile our athletes are, since they are well prepared in all the events. I have to say, our club in the clubs' league was like David against Goliath, since we were fighting with much bigger and established clubs.  Unfortunately, the system of how the points are assigned in the clubs' league are quite unfair and even though we won almost all the events, we came 2nd. In fact, if this system doesn't change, this year we will probably not opt to take part in the clubs' league, since how it is run is, in my opinion, in an unfair way and gives chance only to those who have quantity over quality. Fortunately, most of our athletes believe in us and in the system and will follow our suggestions, since as you said their sense of belonging is already there. Most of them started athletics with us so we are almost like their second family. We are very confident that we can attract new athletes as when a system does work, it shows the fruit, and everybody is already seeing some fruit ripening. So, yes, surely other athletes will join us. We know how we work and coach; we have long term plans for our athletes not just a quick fix for an event. We want long term athletes not ones that come and go just as quickly.

7. Antonella, you embarked on athletics almost by coincidence, participating in a small athletic meet where you caught the attention of some clubs. You have now been training for almost two decades and your PR's as stated before are National Records in 3 different throw events and which stood time too: 13.06m in Shot, 42.86m in Discus and 46.75m in hammer.  The latter has been set last July which means that the plateau can wait! It must be said that over the years, you almost competed as solo. For many it seems easy, yet in Athletics we both know that what is most important is track time and field distance rather than the final placing. How do you manage to find such motivation to continue to improve your performances? Do you think that competing alone here locally puts you at a disadvantage when you compete abroad or its not an issue at all?

When I was younger, being solo was a big struggle. However, by time, I got used to it as I am an only child so I am used to be alone. I started athletics at the age of 23, when there was a competition for government companies. As said, I did very well and some clubs approached me and that is when I started my journey.  About a year later, I met my husband and the journey continued.  At the time, sport and academics was a dilemma. I am coming from a separated family; I never had support to train from my family and even to date they still say I am wasting time but here I am, stubborn as always and doing what I love. Regarding motivation, being with the character that I have, giving up is not an option and I am always hungry for more. I perhaps got this trait from Rachid, since his commitment to the sport is enviable and he never gives up. I think I can still do much better especially in hammer throw as this is a venture I embarked on very recently, since for many years I was a discus thrower. I set some targets and I am ready to give it my all to reach them. I also wish to take the opportunity to tell all the parents that might be reading this that academics and sports do work together and you can be successful in both, so don't be the one that stops your children from doing sports to focus on their academic subjects.

8. Antonella, you travel a lot all year round mainly for training but more often that not competing. Abroad, you carry quite a baggage. We are all ears about your achievements, wins and performances.

Athletics takes me in various places as a coach but more so as an athlete. I broke over 30 national records that include shot put, discus and hammer throw.   When I was younger, I competed for more than 10 years for a club in Switzerland called GGB Berne. In 2007, I was the winner in Discus of the A Clubs league, the most prestigious league in Switzerland.  Since I started athletics, I took part in various GSSE games, namely the editions in Malta, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino, various European Team Championships and European Games.  About 3 years ago, my husband and I decided to embark on this new adventure of Masters Athletics. In these games, I won various medals, starting from a silver medal in the European Indoor Masters Championships in Ancona, Italy in 2016, bronze in the weight throw in the European Outdoor Masters Championships Aarhus, Denmark in 2017,  bronze in the hammer throw in the European Indoor Masters Championships Madrid, Spain in 2018,   silver in the weight throw in the World Indoor Masters Championships in Torun, Poland in 2019, doing a personal best on the way, silver in the discus throw in the World Indoor Masters Championships Torun, Poland in 2019 and bronze in the weight throw in the World Indoor Masters Championships Torun, Poland in 2019.  One must say, that there is a big misconception regarding masters athletics here in Malta; many think that dated athletes go to compete in these competitions but it is a completely different story. If one enters to see the results which are done in these competitions, he/she can easily realise the high level that some categories reach. It can easily be said that the 35, 40 and 45 category would easily break nearly all the national records that we have in Malta, just to give you a  simple comparison. To give an example, at the last championships in Poland, the hammer was won by the bronze Olympic medallist in Sydney and in the  60m for category men 40, the event was won by Francis Obikwelu, multiple time Olympian and current European Record holder of the 100m. This is the high level you find in most events in Masters athletics therefore it is not justifiable to say that the athletes competing at these games are dated. Moreover, masters athletics is given importance all over the world, since as we all say, lead by example. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for Malta.  Many countries treat masters athletics just like any other competition done by youngsters and give it the same value and exposure. In these things, us Maltese unfortunately fall behind but I hope that my husband and I will be the contribution for a change in the Maltese mentality.

 

9. Antonella, you are an evergreen and to me whether you are in your 40s or your 70s, your greatest days and greatest achievements may still lay ahead. I think that's an essential belief that keeps people going. We need to support that belief by what we do now so we will be capable and ready to grasp future opportunites! Some say that age is just a number, in your case it works wonders. What do you expect for the future? When do you think you can hang up the hammer and focus only on coaching? You mastered three different throw events out of four and you won considerably in all events, how come you opted to focus on the hammer which implement weighs 4kgs, dangerous and the throwing technique is quite complicated too?  What is so special with the hammer and what does it mean to you? Did you ever compete in Javelin? If so what type of results?

 Till my body keeps functioning well, I will continue training and if I continue achieving what I aim for, it is difficult for me to say that I will stop. Age is purely just a number; you need to listen to your body and do what needs to be done and I don't see a timeline for this.  For now, I don't have any intention of hanging up my hammer but I am giving coaching just as much importance as my training since I understand my athletes are the future and I need to give them the very best of my knowledge. My athletes have come a long way in sports and they are very talented and gifted. Today, they have more opportunities than I had in my days so they can go much further in athletics than I did.  I can proudly say that all my athletes, namely Luca, Karol, Mariah, Kyle, Sarah and Kareem started throwing by coincidence and prior to training with me, they didn't have an idea of what throwing is like. To date, they achieved much more than they would have ever expected initially; they are the best in the country, having various national records themselves. I am sure that the best is yet to come out of them since they are really motivated and trust the coaching process. If you ask them if they want me to stop, they will say no, since I motivate and give them courage to continue and persevere, since they know if I can still do it, they will surely do it better than me.  I started as a shot putter but since I was solo after I broke the national record it became quite boring, so after being hit by a discus accidentally, risking serious injury, I decided to start training it! It is like taking the bull by the horns - I immediately fell in love with the event and spent most of my training days doing it with my coach at the time Vladimir Duchenkov. For many years, it was satisfying. However, it came to a point where I had reached my potential and I couldn't improve more with the limitations I had. About 5 years ago, I changed coach and started training with Rachid. This was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make since you know how it is, you need to listen to the coach and him being my husband did not help but I committed to it.  At the same time, it was hard to find motivation since as said, discus had given me a lot but I stopped improving. Being the way I am and hating such situations, my husband and I decided to give hammer a serious chance. Prior to that time, I used to throw hammer just for fun. I must say, the hammer technique is really one of the most complex in the throwing events, although some think it has the easiest technique to learn. I can say that having tried 4 out of 5 throwing events, it is the most complicated one, since you need to have all the 3 key factors: strength, speed and coordination.  Hammer throw means everything to me since it is an event that I revived here in Malta as it was not practiced for decades. Now, we have some quality athletes coming up in this event which sparks hope that one day this event will bring Malta satisfaction internationally. As for  the  Javelin throw, I tried it a few times but never connected with it. It is an event I will never do. 

 

10. Antonella, let us be frank. Throws are not popular with local athletes even though there a handful of promising and established athletes more males than females who are doing very well. The perception of many is that being a thrower is by far easier than a runner. I think it's a misconception. Most people picture a large, overweight athlete as the ideal or the norm for the shot put, hammer, discus, and weight throw. I think that since the implements do not weigh as much as the men's, there is more of a premium on athletic ability, speed, and technique than in the men's events. So the right body size matters. I think you need to be strong but at the same time flexible and fast to produce the right momentum to execute a good throw. What is your impression of this? What do you think of my reasonings? Please describe your training in weights, sprinting and accelerations, mastering the technique and practising as much as possible?

You could not have described it more perfectly! There is a huge misconception of the throwing events. In addition to this, we also lack adequate facilities to practice our discipline since whatever happens to the track, the throwers are ironically the first ones to suffer and be stopped from training because of reseeding etc.  With the national track being the only throwing venue in Malta, when such things happen, you either have to give up or try to find alternatives.  Unfortunately, these things happen annually, sometimes more than once, yet no one seems to care. To whoever pictures throwers as obese and large, you have no idea what you are talking about. To be a good thrower, you need to train just like any other track and field athletes; you need weight training, sprints and agility. These three work together like clockwork; if one lacks one of these key components, he/she can be a thrower but never a good one.  I can easily give you an example with my daughter Sarah. We all know she is mainly a 400m runner but she is still the current U14, U16 and U18 hammer throw record holder. Everybody knows her and when she did the records, which is now nearly 2 years ago, she was weighing only 50kg, and throwing the hammer at 47.95m at the young age of 13. With that body weight and her physique reminiscent to that of a sprinter, it shows that it is not about body weight but having the 3 fundamental components that makes you an excellent thrower. 

I always say that the throwers are the first people to come to the track and the last to leave since the training, if done properly, involves many things and not only throwing. I trained and competed many times abroad and can say that some throwers can beat a sprinter easily in the first 20-30 meters and that reflects that a thrower is powerful and coordinated. All the throwing events are very difficult to coach and you need a lot of experience to do so. Unfortunately, in Malta, we lack good throwing coaches. In fact, I can say that there are only two coaches that can help you master such complex events.

 

Antonella, that your second home is Marsa track and field is no secret at all, but such commitment is commendable and impressive indeed. You have remained the only woman standing tall in the Open Category which by itself is already a big feat. Solo competing can lead to boredom and lack of motivation but not with you.  You are still improving! I can only wish you more success and better performances whilst thanking you for accepting my interview.

I thank you for the opportunity to share my story and following my journey. Whilst I cannot see the end of the road as of yet, I am confident enough that the best is yet to come for me. My final message is that I encourage more people to take up sport, even if they feel as though they too old. Late is better than never and with the right determination and commitment, anything is possible.

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