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Indonesia's first Olympic gymnast encourages others to 'dream higher'

Rifda Irfanaluthfi, 24, is the first Indonesian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics (BAY ISMOYO)
Rifda Irfanaluthfi, 24, is the first Indonesian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics (BAY ISMOYO)

Indonesian gymnast Rifda Irfanaluthfi's palms are covered in chalk as she swings between two uneven bars during intensive training just weeks before she makes history at the Paris Olympics.

The 24-year-old is the first Indonesian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics, let alone the first woman, and her mind is set on reaching Paris fully fit so she can etch her name into gymnastics legend at home.

"There is a feeling of excitement. I hope that by qualifying for the Olympics, the world will get to know Indonesia better," she told AFP after training in the capital Jakarta.

"I am also feeling worried because of injuries, it made me have insomnia for the last five days."

Her feat is even more impressive considering Indonesia does not yet have a national training centre for gymnastics and that conservative Indonesian society, including its top sports, remains dominated by men.

The archipelago's enthusiasm is largely focused on football and badminton, the latter the only sport in which it has won Olympic gold.

So talent alone was not enough for Rifda to make it as a gymnast. A level of dedication to overcome a series of hurdles, including a lack of support, was also required.

"I continue to practise, and I prove that with limited facilities I can be a successful athlete," she said.

"People still underestimated us."

Rifda's family had struggled to find a school that would recognise and support something unknown to them such as gymnastics.

Her luck changed when she was admitted to an athletes' school in Jakarta that took her one step closer to her Olympic dream.

- 'Dream higher' -

Rifda started swimming as a child before trying her hand at diving, sport climbing, rhythmic gymnastics and artistic gymnastics.

Her mother Yulies Andriana said Rifda attracted attention as a talented gymnast and won her first medal at a junior championship in Singapore as an 8-year-old.

Rifda qualified for the July 26-August 11 Olympics at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Belgium last year, with an all-round performance on the vault, floor, uneven bars and balance beam.

"Her desire to be a champion is amazing," her mum Yulies said.

Rifda hopes her Olympic exploits can inspire other young Indonesians to follow their dreams, competing against gymnastic juggernauts such as the United States and nations from the former Soviet Union.

"Maybe athletes of my age who have never qualified for the Olympics will become passionate to dream higher," she said.

The sport is set to grow in Indonesia after it was handed the hosting rights to the World Gymnastics Championships for the first time in 2025, although it still has a long way to go.

"Gymnastics needs to be improved comprehensively," Indonesian National Olympic Committee Chief Raja Sapta Oktohari told AFP.

But he said "the opportunity for women is pretty big" now as the sport gains more attention.

Indonesia's Olympic medal tally is slight but has been influenced by women who came before Rifda.

Its first medal was a silver at Seoul 1988 by a team of female archers, and two of its eight badminton golds were won by a female shuttler at Barcelona 1992 and a women's doubles pair at Tokyo 2020.

Indonesia's new gymnastics queen hopes to join that special list, but she still needs therapy for her injured knee.

She wants to recover in time to perform well in Paris despite that setback, make the history books and then return home for a well-deserved sweet treat.

"Ice cream, strawberry flavour," she said with a smile.

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