KUWAIT, May 30 (Reuters) - Mariam Erzouqi grips her German-made air rifle with carefully-manicured hands, steadies her footing, eyes the target and slowly pulls the trigger until a soft crack echoes through Kuwait’s cavernous shooting range.
The 24-year-old, who is set to become the second Kuwaiti woman to compete at an Olympic Games, has an affinity for her rifle and will take dead aim at a medal in the 10 and 50 metres air rifle in London.
She first held a rifle at Kuwait’s shooting club aged 17 and recalls that date - June 16, 2004 - without a moment’s hesitation.
“At the beginning I practiced it (was) just to fill my time, then afterwards I discovered that I was very attached to the rifle,” said Erzouqi, dressed in multi-coloured team jumpsuit emblazoned with her family name, a black headscarf and heavy duty boots.
“I loved the sport and it quickly turned into a profession rather than a hobby.”
Erzouqi comes from a family of female shooters who helped form her vital support base. All four of her sisters took up the rifle under the guidance of their watchful mother Awatif, who is also a shooter and competition judge.
Mariam and her 14-year-old sister Heba pursued the sport and are now friendly rivals.
“Heba tells Mariam - watch out, I will beat you!” her mother recounts with a laugh in between inspecting Mariam’s scores and checking her rifles.
She makes sure her daughter keeps to a timetable drawn up by her coach which has her juggling training sessions at the Kuwait shooting complex up to six days a week alongside her studies.
“My female friends teased me in the beginning, but when they saw me winning trophies at home and abroad they encouraged me,” Erzouqi said with a small smile.
“Shooting is not just for young men, there are also girls doing it. It is not rough. It calms my nerves and helps me to focus.”
Erzouqi is seen as especially fortunate with the support she has received in Kuwait, where women can find themselves unwelcome at other sporting clubs or on the receiving end of disapproving comments from more conservative corners of society.
There are also questions over Kuwait’s participation in the Olympics this year. The International Olympic Committee suspended Kuwait in 2010, saying there was evidence of political interference in the Kuwaiti sports movement.
Kuwaiti officials have said they were working with the IOC to resolve the issue in time for the Games and that they expected Erzouqi and her team mates to be able to fly the national flag in London.
But a decision by the IOC at a recent meeting in Quebec means that Kuwaiti competitors could participate under the Olympic flag with the title “Independent Olympic Athlete”.
Erzouqi is following in the footsteps of Danah al-Nasrallah, the first female Kuwaiti athlete to compete at an Olympics. Nasrallah took part in the 100m in 2004, ranking 61st of 63 competitors in the first round.
Erzouqi’s chances look better.
The petite business administration student finished second in the Asian qualifiers in the 10m rifle category, her best discipline.
She won two gold medals at the recent Arab Games and is competing in one of Kuwait’s traditionally strong sports. The country won its only Olympic medal - a bronze - in the double trap shooting competition at the 2000 Sydney Games.
The Kuwaiti media has been full of positive coverage of her achievements and the shooting club says it encourages female participants to take up the sport.
This is in stark contrast to neighbouring Saudi Arabia which has never sent a female athlete to the Olympics and discourages women from sport altogether.
Around 45 girls and women come to the Kuwaiti shooting club on a regular basis, compared to 160 men on the national team. As an international competitor, Erzouqi receives a 400 dinar ($1,428) monthly stipend from the government.
As the Olympics falls in part during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Erzouqi will be fasting, but she says this should not affect her performance thanks to her training.
“If the tournament or training is held in the morning during my fasting times, my performance is not affected because here in Kuwait, we already used to come and train in the mornings,” she said.
“We used to feel exhausted but now we can overcome that and we can endure tiredness, even while we’re fasting.”
Her mother can testify to her daughter’s focus and endurance, having travelled with her to different countries on many occasions for competitions.
“Sometimes I told her, let’s go look at the market, we want to see the country! But no, for Mariam it is shooting, shooting.” (Editing by Peter Rutherford)