Meriem Daoui is the most important athlete you don't know about
Meriem Daoui is not your average 19 year old. The university student from Hobart could be one of Australia’s rising stars in athletics in the next 5 years. With very little experience and limited competition to race against in Tasmania, Daoui has a 34:30 10km under her belt already (watch those times plummet throughout 2018), and a trophy cabinet bursting with victories from local races.
But it’s not just her times that set her apart. Daoui is a Muslim of Moroccan heritage, and competes in full length clothes and a hijab (headscarf). Daoui is also a type 1 diabetic.
Neither her religion, her diabetes, or her running define Meriem Daoui. Her drive to make a positive impact on her community and her refusal to let anything stand in her way speak volumes about her.
And if running wins the battle for Meriem’s commitment, the world will soon discover Tasmania’s best kept secret.
“There’s more to running than just racing. It’s about setting a challenge for each day. When you set goals for yourself, it keeps you moving forward. When I first started running I couldn’t run more than 300m without stopping, so I like looking back at my journey to see how far I’ve come. That motivates me to keep going”.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Daoui couldn’t run more than 300 metres. When we speak, Daoui has just days earlier won the Cadbury 1/2 Marathon in Hobart. It’s one of her first 1/2 marathons on the road, and despite posting a 76:35, Daoui isn’t fussed with the result.
“I didn’t have any plan going into the race. I just thought ‘I’m running today’ and that’s what matters. I enjoyed seeing all the marathoners out on the course as well and seeing everyone support each other.
Run The Bridge is next in about 4 weeks. I ran that last year jet lagged from a flight back from Morocco, it’s a great event. After that, I’m not sure. I want to do some track events to work on my speed, and I also want to go sub 34 for the 10km”.
Running sub 34 minutes as a 19 year old would put Daoui on the right track for a bright future in the sport. This humble, relatively unknown runner from Hobart has big plans for the world stage, but not for the reason you might think.
“Hopefully one day I can compete at an international level and at the same time represent and inspire other Muslim women who wear the hijab to participate in sports because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing.
What you wear shouldn't limit your ability to achieve your goals and dreams.
I've had comments from other influential runners who wear the hijab that I have motivated them to run regardless of what others will think of them. I really appreciate these comments as it means so much to me that I can help influence others to pursue an active and healthy lifestyle.
I know in the past there have been athletes who take off their scarf because people tell them to. But you shouldn’t have to. If you want to wear it, wear it”.
This passion for inspiring and helping others is a constant for Daoui, and another trait that separates her from many of her peers.
As well as being a committed fundraiser for human rights causes (Daoui raised over $5,000 for Syria in 2016 by running her debut marathon - and winning), she’s currently studying nursing at university.
“We moved to Tasmania when I was around 10 years old. I was different to other kids, there aren’t a lot of kids from Morocco wearing the hijab in Tasmania.
When I moved to my new school I attracted a lot of bullying. During grade 5 and 6 the bullying took a toll on me, and really lowered my self esteem and confidence and eventually impacted my mental health.
I developed an eating disorder and was admitted to hospital for 5 weeks, this was then followed by ongoing appointments and referrals for the next 3 years.
When I moved to an all girls school it made a huge difference. I made new friends and I had so much support from everyone around me. That helped me see a more positive view of life and helped with my eating disorder recovery.
It also influenced me to start running and I started to participate in school cross country, fun runs and interclub events”.
“Running has played a huge role in strengthening my self identity and played a tremendous role in my recovery”
Daoui reflects on her experience with a calm level-headedness. She’s not angry about her experience, but it’s obvious she believes improvements can be made.
“I believe that speaking out and raising awareness on mental health will help reduce the negative stigma attached to having a mental illness.
I also believe that the way mental health is approached by the mental health system needs to start focusing on working with the person's strengths rather than labeling them with a disorder.
The mental health system needs to recognize the importance of looking at the person holistically and individually rather than labeling them with an illness.
I felt like I only truly started to recover when I made the decision that I had to get better for myself, especially if I wanted to strengthen my athletic abilities and to be healthy in the future to live a fulfilling and healthy life. I also found that surrounding myself in a positive environment with family and friends really helped”.
“I want other people who are struggling to know that they don’t need to suffer in silence and that it's ok to seek help and assurance”
"Nursing allows me to help people every day, you see people from life to death and get to play a role in helping people through their struggles. I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through with bullying and everything else. I want to save them that trouble”.
Daoui shows enormous compassion, maturity, and perspective. It would be understandable for a victim of bullying to be angry at the world around her, however Daoui goes to great lengths to elevate her community, and feels completely at home in Hobart.
“There has been a positive shift in multiculturalism in Tasmania over the past few years. People are much more accepting and understanding now. When we first moved to Tasmania racism was a lot more frequent. But now the majority of people that I encounter are so supportive and friendly.
When people congratulate me I don’t know how to react. I find it hard to take compliments because I don’t see myself as better than anyone else. I believe we are all equal and have our own unique qualities”.
Family is important for Daoui. She was born in Morocco, and the family still returns back to their homeland every few years.
“Last time we went I got to do a lot of running (Ed: Daoui made a late decision to enter the National XC Championships and placed 2nd junior). The Atlas Mountains are beautiful; the air is so pure and it’s quiet, it’s perfect for running.
My family are very supportive of my running. I love sharing what I’m doing with them and also with our relatives back in Morocco. My little brother is starting to get interested in running now so he comes on runs with me occasionally.
Sometimes I see my little sisters come home from school upset about bullying and I just talk to them and tell them not to worry about what other people say, it doesn’t matter”.
As a type 1 diabetic Daoui would have plenty of excuses to back off her training or to avoid running in the first place. But after everything else she’s overcome, diabetes never stood a chance of getting in the way.
“When I first started running I was worried about my diabetes, but it doesn’t stop me training and racing. You just have to work with your doctor and listen to your body. You can’t let it limit you from what you want to do, anything is possible if you put your mind to it.
Once I’ve done my nursing degree I would like to become a diabetes educator because I think I can help people on a different level. It’s one thing to learn about diabetes, but to live with the condition I am able to relate and empathise with patients”.
"One of my big goals is to represent Australia. I would love to wear the green and gold one day"
Meriem Daoui’s future is full of potential. Will that take her to the international sporting stage? Or will it lead her somewhere even more important? I have a feeling that whatever Daoui chooses to pursue, she’s going to have a big impact on the world.
“In life I want to be the best I can be, and influence others in a positive way. I want to encourage people to be themselves and to speak up if they are struggling with anything.
What I’ve been through is part of who I am. I don’t regret any of it. It strengthens me as a person and has helped shape my identity. I wouldn’t change a thing”.