Sheikh Rashid Bin Ahmed Al Maktoum On Olympic Goals And Overcoming Cancer

6 min read

This determined member of the Dubai royal family beat cancer, and now has his sights set on the Olympics

Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed Al Maktoum sits down after an enjoyable ride at the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club in Studio City. Still recovering from a broken shoulder blade sustained in December, and a collarbone that was broken in November, the Emirati show jumper is facing a packed schedule of qualifying tournaments that he hopes will lead to the Paris Olympics in 2024. “That’s my ultimate goal,” he smiles.“It would be an unbelievable feeling to be there.”

Would he feel nervous before the biggest event of his life? “You can only do your best,” he explains. “If you push too hard, you’re probably going to mess up, so don’t stress. You worked hard to get there, so if you’re not going to have fun, there’s no point. Do your best and you will get the best result. Enjoy the moment.”

Recovering from injury, Sheikh Rashid has his sights set on the Paris Olympics in 2024

It’s an admirable attitude, and one that demonstrates Sheikh Rashid’s balanced outlook on success and failure. Enjoying the moment is a mantra that seems to come easily to a man who was given a shattering cancer diagnosis justa few years ago on November 6, 2019.

After feeling weak for about 10 days, Sheikh Rashid assumed it was the typical tiredness associated with being a father to two young daughters, Hessa and Alia, who at the time were aged just two and nine months respectively. Sheikh Rashid took a blood test, and was informed that 86 per cent of his blood had leukaemia, and that the typical life expectancy for a case such as his was just three months. After being told he must go to the UK immediately for treatment, he resisted.“I said, ‘I can’t, the kids are in school, my family is here, my horses are here, I can’t just get up and go’,” he says.

Assisted by his uncle, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai (Sheikh Rashid is the son of Sheikha Hessa bint Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum), he flew to the UK and underwent a robust course of chemotherapy. “I went from weighing 77kg to 47kg,” he says. “I lost my hair, eyebrows, beard, everything. I lost my identity. But I was more worried about my wife and daughters, rather than myself. I wanted to get better for them.”

Forty days after his diagnosis, Sheikh Rashid was clear of leukaemia. But a new enemy then presented itself: depression.“I was getting depressed during my chemo, but I didn’t know why,” says the 31-year-old.“I didn’t know that chemo drugs contained a depressant. I was in bed for 23-and-a-half hours a day. I went downhill, and for almost two years I wanted nothing to do with my horses. It felt like I was tired, but I was depressed.” With the support of his British-born wife, Natalie Lankester, an accomplished dressage rider who hopes to represent the UAE at the Asian Games this September, Sheikh Rashid took medication and sought therapy. “My wife was strong,” he says. “She lifted the whole house on her shoulders, she took care of the kids and helped me through it. And she got me a good psychiatrist, who helped me with my depression.”

Sheikh Rashid’s wife, Natalie, and two daughters share a love of horses

Sheikh Rashid is determined to dismantle the stigma that continues to surround mental health, particularly depression.“Many people are ashamed to talk about depression, but I’m not at all,” he says. “If you need help, ask for it. The only way to get out of it is to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk to a therapist, because I thought, ‘This person doesn’t know me, what do I say?’ But once you start talking, you hear it out loud, and you realise you’re not only benefitting yourself but also other people who might be going through the same thing. People often try to hide what they’re feeling to show more strength, but I think it’s stronger to admit what problems you have and explain how you’re working on them. I’m Emirati, you’re British, but at the end of the day we’re all human beings.”

His two daughters, now aged six and four, are both showing a keen interest in horses, and Sheikh Rashid loves spending time with them at the polo club. It was here that he had his first ride after chemotherapy.“I took one lap of the arena on my horse, just walking, and I was completely out of breath, I had to sit down for 45 minutes to recover,” he says. “I thought I would never ride again.” Continuing with his medication helped to raise his energy levels, he began to socialise more, and “little by little” he started riding again, eventually winning a tournament. “That felt absolutely amazing,” he recalls. “I was very emotional. I held it in on the podium in front of the crowd, but when I went back home… it was a very happy moment.”

Sheikh Rashid began riding horses at the age of 14 and was drawn in by the adrenaline

Sheikh Rashid has a renewed vigour in his quest for showjumping glory, and says he feels physically stronger than he did before getting cancer. His mentality has also shifted. “Cancer changes your outlook on life, for sure. Before cancer, I was always looking too much into the future, and my vision for three years, five years, 10 years,” he explains. “After cancer, I told myself, focus on this moment, appreciate the moment you’re in now. Stop chasing the result. Do the work. and let the result come to you.”

The result of this hard work, he hopes, will be a spot on the UAE Olympic team as an individual showjumping rider with his horses, Casanova DXB and Galb DXB.“Showjumping is a dance, it’s like you’re working with a dance partner,” says Sheikh Rashid. “You need to know each other, feel the rhythm and the beat, and then go for it.” The appeal of showjumping, he adds, is the sheer thrill. “I like the precision, the speed, the control, the manoeuvring – and the adrenaline,” he smiles. “Once I’m in the arena, everything and everyone disappears, I can’t see or hear anything. I see the course and I feel what my horse is feeling, that’s all. I thrive on the atmosphere from big crowds, it gives me extra drive.”

“Showjumping is a dance, it’s like you’re working with a dance partner,” says Sheikh Rashid. “You need to know each other, feel the rhythm and the beat, and then go for it.”

Just before he heads home, Sheikh Rashid tells an anecdote that reveals how he got hooked on horses, aged just 14, during a summer in France with his sister, Sheikha Latifa, who was a keen rider. “I was obsessed with football,” he begins. “My sister said I should come to Deauville to try some go-karting or paintballing, and enjoy the beach. I went for a weekend and ended up at the stable to meet my friends to play football. Then I saw a grey mare, and she was quite crazy, and I thought, that’s the kind of challenging riding I want to do. And I did it – wearing jeans, which was very painful.

“On the third day, my sister said, ‘Try a jump.’ She was joking, but I thought she was being serious, so I rode towards the jump. As I got nearer, I could hear my sister yelling,‘No, stop!’. But I took the jump and that was it – I was hooked!” Now that sounds like living in the moment.

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Words by Rob Chilton

Photographed by Tina Patni on location at Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club, Studio City