When world-record holder Ali Jawad takes centre stage at the powerlifting world championships this weekend in Dubai, he might look out at the sea of expectant faces and wonder just how he managed to triumph over a series of almost insurmountable obstacles.
Few elite athletes have a story more remarkable than the 24-year-old Lebanese-born lifter, whose journey to become one of Great Britain’s top Paralympians has been beset by crippling illness and contentious judging decisions.
Yet he has overcome it all to become the world No 1 and a favourite for 2016 Paralympic gold in Rio.
All this however, was a distant dream after a disastrous 2012 games that left the Londoner, at his home Paralympics in front of friends and family, starting in an abyss of depression and resentment for very sport to which he devoted his life from an early age.
“It was probably the most heart breaking moment of my life. I don’t think I’ll truly ever get over what happened.”
Jawad speaks resentfully about the fateful moment that judges controversially denied him his first ever career medal at his home Paralympics.
After breaking the European record in front a wild crowd at the ExCel centre, Jawad needed a final 189kg lift for a medal. Thinking he’d lifted successfully, he started celebrating, before spying the dreaded pair of red lights.
“I couldn’t believe it. We protested but the jury decided it was a good lift and I thought I’d won the silver medal. But then the jury changed their mind again, ordering a re-lift – they wanted me to do it again.”
To lift at maximum energy twice in 10 minutes is nigh-on impossible, and Jawad did not make the re-lift.
“I was heart-broken, in tears, I felt robbed. More painful is that I lost bronze as I was heavier than the Chinese lifter despite us lifting the same weight,” he recalls bitterly.
To compound matters, two days later the same fate befell another powerlifter, but the jury allowed the lift. Jawad finished an agonising fourth.
“Those scenes in London will remain with me until I put it right,” says Jawad. “I really hope Rio will put the ghost to bed. At first, I thought about it every day, but now I use it to spur me on."
Born without legs, Jawad’s parents moved to North London from Lebanon in order to give their son a normal life.
“Bringing up kids who weren't disabled was hard enough” he observes. “We needed to move away. England was our best option because of the provision of prosthetic limbs which could enable me to walk.”
From an early age, Jawad realised he had a natural talent for sport, but at 16 a friend introduced him to lifting weights and he never looked back.
The night before the then 19-year-old was due to compete at the Beijing games in 2008, Jawad’s world came crashing down. He was taken ill with the debilitating bowel condition Crohns disease causing him to retire from the sport in 2009.
However, in 2010, following major surgery to remove part of his intestine, Jawad resumed training just a fortnight later. Despite the disease resurfacing in 2011, he nonetheless gained the last automatic qualifying spot for London 2012.
After the disappointment of London, Jawad suffered depression, taking time off from the sport to reflect on his personal and professional heartbreak.
“Before the games, I deprived myself of eating lots and going out with my friends. Afterwards I indulged, to try not to think about the games, but deep down I was hurting,” he says.
Binge eating and drinking caused a Crohns flare up, which laid Jawad low for eight months. However, during the recovery process he realised that his dream of a Paralympic gold was as strong as ever.
“I knew I had to snap out of my depressed state and fight till the end for success in Rio,” says Jawad defiantly. He moved back to his Leeds training base and transferred study for a Sport and Exercise Science degree to Leeds Metropolitan University. With emphasis on health and diet, he completely revamped his training schedule alongside coach Tom Whitaker.
Last May, Jawad won bronze at the IPC European championships in Russia but wasn't satisfied. He was discovering a new-found steel and determination, which was to be a turning point.
Last November at the Asian Open tournament in Kuala Lumpur, Jawad stormed to gold, smashing both the European and world records, lifting three times his own body weight. "Malaysia was my first chance to show the world that can I compete on the world stage and I am over my previous troubles."
Jawad finished 2013 as the world number one, the first British lifter to do so in nine years.
The first half of 2014 is the most crucial time in Jawad’s career to date, with the sheer weight of expectation on his shoulders. First up are the April IPC World Championships in Dubai, after which it is back to home soil to compete in the Commonwealth games in Glasgow, where he will be a top medal hope.
“The pressure is definitely on to win a world title, a feat that no British IPC male has ever achieved.”
However, all roads lead to Rio 2016, which offer the opportunity to banish Jawad's Paralympic hoodoo forever. There is certainly no shortage of optimism from the Londoner.
“A Rio 2016 gold medal is the end goal in this Paralympic cycle. A cycle I've approached differently because I've found effective medication. My diet is even stricter than it was prior to the games in London.”
“Tom and myself have pursued every avenue to limit my health flare ups. This ensures I can train all the time and I'm slowly seeing the results. Hopefully the world champs will be a springboard for my pursuit of a medal in Rio."
Away from competition, Jawad is passionately involved in the charity Crohns and Colitis UK, which made him a ‘charity champion’ after London 2012.
“It is such an incredible honour and I hope that I can inspire my fellow sufferers,” he enthuses. "I'd neglected my charity work due to my hectic schedule, so a main goal is to carry out a lot more work and raise the charity's profile.”
It takes a unique mentality for an athlete to come back from such adversity to become top of his sport. What is more extraordinary however, is that there is so much as yet unwritten.Reuse content