AOTM September 2023: Amira Salhi-Tunisia’s Top Female Sanda Athlete

Amira Salhi, 28, is one of Tunisia’s most accomplished female sanda athletes, winning a bronze medal at the 9th Sanda World Cup in Hangzhou, and winning another even more coveted bronze medal at the World Wushu Championships in Shanghai in 2019. Putting Tunisia on the WWC champion podium was a national sport achievement. Her devotion to sanda, and promoting her sport in Tunisia, is one of her heartfelt passions. Amira’s approach to training and competing, even as she faces challenges, shows her indomitable spirit as a fighter who possesses both strong punches and kicks, but also a powerful will and determination to overcome circumstance and pursue her dream of someday being top world champion in women’s sanda.

Sanda Beginnings


Amira says when she was a kid she participated in a lot of sports in Tunisia, but was especially attracted to the martial arts. “I started kickboxing and then taekwondo, with my first coach, and I stayed with that awhile because I wanted to compete on the national team.” But taekwondo didn’t hold Amira’s interest once she was exposed to sanda, a martial sport with  complexity and diversity that captured her heart once she began training in it. “I loved wushu sanda,” she says, “with its combination of boxing and kick boxing with wrestling and throwing. It feels like it has many kinds of sports together in one. This made kungfu come alive for me, and showed me real purpose in training and competing.”

Amira joined a club, and looked forward to testing her sanda skills in competition. “My first championship in sanda was a regional championship,” she recalls, “and then a national championship when I was about 12 years old.  I wanted to go and take the first place and I was confident I’d win. I’ve always developed my skills to practice and not stop, despite the pain and sacrifices.” The coach soon saw that Amira was one of the most powerful fighters in the club, among boys and girls, and took a special interest to coach her and develop her skills.


International Sanda Debut

Amira’s international debut internationally would come in 2017 at the 14th World Wushu Championships in Kazan. She remembers, “I returned from a long hiatus in 2017 and trained for 3 months. I participated in the Tunisian Cup, and here I began the transformation in my life, and my real path forward in the sport of wushu. I was selected to join the national team, and I started my training with them. My reputation as a fighter grew as I fought with strong players and competed with a weight of 56kg. This is a big category with many top female athletes in it. In the same year, I was selected to participate in the World Championships in Kazan, Russia.”

Amira recalls, “It was a more than wonderful experience and I was confident that I would achieve something in my first international competition. Upon my arrival to Kazan, I was very surprised. This was not a regional or national championship. There was another world, I knew, and I always had that feeling that I would not achieve my goal until I entered the first international competition.”

On seeing the high level of fighters, Amira says, “I had mixed feelings, but I was determined that I had to win, and then came the first disappointment with the raising of my competitor’s hand. I even felt that I was wronged by the referees and that my coach should have raised the caution card, but this did not happen.”

“But,” Amira says, “from that time on, I was determined to come back stronger, and my desire increased even more to return, and start over and try to reach my dream, which is the first place in the World Championships.”


Medaling at the Sanda World Cup

Regardless of her disappointment on the leitai in Kazan, the passion for sanda and desire to be the best was kindled from a flame to a fire in Amira. While she noted disappointment in her results, nevertheless her placing was good enough to qualify her for the 9th Sanda World Cup in 2018 in Hangzhou. Here, she would become an international champion, and stand on the podium for Tunisia, winning a bronze medal.

“Yes,” remarks Amira, “I won the bronze medal in the 9th Sanda World Cup. Although I lost with my Vietnamese competitor, who honestly was stronger than me at that time, and I felt her experience in the field of wushu and competitions may have been greater than mine. A year’s experience cannot be compared to several years’ experience in this field. Each country’s sport program also offers a difference in opportunity. Does a country encourage your specialization in sport or not? Even the exercises and preparation time vary a lot from national team to national team.”

Amira understood for the first time what a wide range of training and preparation there was from country to country. “I was called to prepare for the World Cup in less than a month,” she recalls, “and then I also traveled for work. Whoever wants to win this type of tournament, the preparations must be continuous and for the whole year, not done in a month or two. As I said, it is not a regional championship — this is a world championship or a world cup. This means that it includes the globe’s strongest competitors, and the goal is the same for all, which is victory. This is our challenge in Arab and African countries, that you are called to prepare in a month or two. This is not a sufficient period of time to compete with world champions and strong competitors who have been preparing for year or maybe more.”

“Now,” says Amira, “regarding my competition with the Vietnamese woman, I was determined to win and compensate for my loss in Russia. But as I said, the experience factor varies and the preparation period varies from opponent to opponent. I tried hard to win against her, but unfortunately I lost — but after every loss I always said that I would come back again and I would keep trying. My vision was always to achieve victory over these powerful heroes and immortalize my name in the sport of wushu.”


Stepping Onto the WWC Podium

The sanda events Kazan and Hangzhou created a sea change for Amira. Her perspectives on training and competition shifted and became more sophisticated. In 2019 the 15th World Wushu Championships in Shanghai offered redemption, and she was hungry for it. Winning the bronze medal at last fulfilled one goal, to become a world champion and see the flag of Tunisia rise behind her on the podium.

“This was a different experience from the other experiences,” Amira says of the 15th WWC. “I was determined this time to achieve victory, no matter what it might cost me. My first competitor was the Brazilian, a strong competitor who also had experience, but I said to myself that I would win — and nothing but winning was important. Thank God the victory was my share this time. As for strategy, my coach and I watched videos of the Brazilian competition and he developed a plan to win it, and he was present behind me and guiding me throughout the rounds.”

Then, Amira would face the fighter from Vietnam again, Thi Nguyen, the same athlete who had beaten her in Kazan. “As for the Vietnamese competition,” she says philosophically, “to whom I lost for the second time, this time was different — so much so that I felt like I was the winner even though I went down with an injury to my leg. But it was different from the previous time. Even the way I fought with her was not like the first time, and she found it difficult this time to win against me.”

“Winning a bronze medal at a World Championships means a lot for me and my team, for sure, says Amira.  “It was after a lot of effort from me personally, and from our coach in the national team, as well as the preparations in a short period of time and with few resources. But our insistence on achieving our dreams was the only motivation for us, and we sacrificed much for it.  As I said before in African countries there is a lack of support from the state for individual sports athletes that are not from popular team sports.”


Athletes Sharing Dreams

“Training with my friends in the national team,” Amira comments, “was one of the greatest moments I experienced, even with the fatigue and pain, because we shared the same dream and strived to achieve it. We always supported each other in victory and loss, and we tried to comfort each other in our worst moments, and each of us encouraged the other. It was one of the most wonderful moments and still is.”

“I have friends,” continues Amira, “from some other international wushu sanda teams that I got to know in competitions, and that friendship still exists today. We talk and ask about each other and about what’s new in sanda, and in championships, especially if there are championships coming up. We encourage each other, and hope to see each other at each next event.” Amira also notes that the elite circle of sanda athlete friends share knowledge and that all competition is a path to growth. “You know the champions of this sport,” she says. “You try to learn from them, even just by watching them play. You try to keep up with them and compete with them. You try to achieve your goal in this sport and always strive to improve your abilities and come back stronger and win.”


Sanda Sport Challenges


“The toughest obstacle I have had to overcome in my sport career is also faced by many athletes and sports in Tunisia, not just for me. Individual athletes lack financial support, and our resources are barely enough for us to make preparations and enter camps from the beginning of the year. You alone make sacrifices to try to reach your goals. In Tunisia, we have the best coaches, especially the coaches of our national team, who have a lot of experience. But the potential factor remains that without support from government, it’s difficult to develop as an athlete and as a sport, even if we try hard. But still, every year, wushu develops more and I believe that it will make its presence known with other sports, especially since the goal of all of us in the sport of wushu is to enter the Olympic Games.”

Amira says, “My thoughts on wushu being an official sport in the Dakar 2026 Youth Olympic Games – I think it’s a great step for our sport. I think it is important for wushu to rise to another advanced stage. It is certain that this step will make our sport better known and help popularize wushu in Africa, and it will help it develop further. I hope we can open the path for the athletes of our sport to enter the Olympic Games one day and achieve our highest goals.”

Amira adds, “My family was and still is my primary supporter in my sport. They are proud of me in my wins and losses, and they always encourage and push me to move forward and achieve my goal, and there are no words to express their constant support for me in my career.”


Future Goals and Dreams

“I’m graduated from the Faculty of Law and have a master’s degree in law and sports,” Amira says. “As for work, I am a trainer. My hobbies and passion are sports. Sometimes you feel that sports are your only motivation for living, your passion, your love. Your hobby is practicing that sport, which has become like a kind of oxygen that breathes for you and takes you out of the pressures of life, and as you practice your sport and become more attached to it, it takes you to another level — which is the dream of achieving goals in this sport. One of my dreams and ambitions is to achieve first place in the World Championships and immortalize my name in this sport. Of course when I retire from competition I will continue as a coach and participate in promoting the development of Tunisia’s wushu sanda.”

While some athletes have the opportunity to focus all their time and energy on their sport, others are compelled to shoulder life responsibilities and balance their work with their training and competition. “I traveled to Saudi Arabia for work,” says Amira, “and this makes it very difficult to train and compete. But in Saudi Arabia now there is an attempt to develop sanda and promote it more. I will certainly try to participate in their sanda championships, but it is impossible for a foreign athlete to enter the national team. But if I have another opportunity to participate in international competitions with my national team in Tunisia, I will certainly answer the call — because I have a dream and I want to achieve it one day.”

“It breaks my heart,” Amira says, “because in Tunisia you almost cannot work and practice sports. You must choose this or that, and this problem is for many players, not just me. Because every person has responsibilities, and we do not receive a wage from sports to meet them, so you choose to go to work to fulfill these responsibilities. As I said, I chose to go to work in Saudi Arabia, but I have the same dream that I still keep alive, and one day I will achieve it.”

Amira’s sanda skills match her fighting spirit; her resilience makes her a true champion. “My biggest wish is to return to competition to achieve my goals in sanda,” she says. “I wish I could have the resources and capabilities and fully return to training again, and try to immortalize my name in wushu. I wish I could find a solution that would help me fully realize my career in sanda to achieve this dream that I have always strived to make real, and for which I sacrificed so much. I always say, even when all paths and solutions are cut off, that the dream is still alive.”

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