Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

How lockdown sparked Ali Jawad’s ‘second chance’ at Paralympic glory

Exclusive: The 2016 Paralympic silver medallist was prepared to sacrifice his Tokyo dream to undergo a revolutionary stem cell trial to treat Crohn’s Disease – but is now bidding for a another shot at glory

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Wednesday 18 November 2020 11:48 GMT
Ali Jawad poses with his 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medal
Ali Jawad poses with his 2018 Commonwealth Games bronze medal (Getty)

“If I had to state my ideal scenario, this is it.”

The wont of professional sportsmen and women is to turn even the most crushing negatives into positives. Few are better at that than Olympians and Paralympians, which is maybe why every four years we invest so much in their success. Theirs is a hope straight from the bottle, raw and unabashed.

But even amid a Covid-19 pandemic that has delayed the Tokyo Games and created widespread uncertainty among the athletics community, Ali Jawad remains unequivocal in his optimism. And as he walks The Independent through his internal logic, it does not take long to realise his view is not rose-tinted, but necessary.

In 2009, Jawad, a Paralympic powerlifter born without both his legs, was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. But the beginning to this particular chapter starts only a few years ago, after his silver medal at the Rio Paralympics which, so goes the narrative, saw Jawad triumph over his illness.

Only, the illness would begin to take a greater toll on his body at the beginning of the next four-year Paralympic cycle. Even the medication he prescribed to treat his Crohn's proved counter-productive with its catabolic side effects. “My body would breakdown every six to eight weeks,” Jawad says. “There’s been no consistency.”

Ali Jawad en route to finishing fourth at London 2012 (Getty Images)

He has torn his pectorals “four or five times” in the last three years despite having had no previous history of the injury. Thus, training and competition has been compromised by life's own struggles. Though he was in contention to qualify for the Paralympics with a top-eight ranking, he didn’t have much hope of holding onto it. “My ranking wasn’t safe. If I had dropped out of the eight, I wouldn't have been in a fit enough state to reclaim my spot. Even if I had made it, I would have probably come last.”

Indeed the summer of 2020 was going to be the end. He was due to undergo a revolutionary stem cell trial involving aggressive chemotherapy at the start of 2021 to give him a better quality of life if successful. The experimental nature of the treatment meant a long recovery period would be required, meaning he would have also missed the rescheduled Games.

However, on the day the International Olympic Committee confirmed 2020’s postponements, Jawad was informed his trial was also off the table given the extra complications that would arise with coronavirus. And so, a light went off in the 31-year old’s head.

“I was sat there getting the news and I realised, here was my second chance. Here was my chance to make up the ground I’ve lost in the last three years. I looked around and realised how I had organised my life was perfectly geared up for a push towards 2021."

A week earlier the United Kingdom had been placed into lockdown. Based in Loughborough at the national training centre, he was able to source equipment from British Weightlifting to turn his living room into a gym. With shopping easy enough online, an ever-improving repertoire in the kitchen and the ability to study remotely for his PhD on anti-doping in Paralympic sport, there was little to no reason to leave the house. Thus, he realised this is how he would have to be, not just until the lockdown restrictions were over, but for the entirety of the next year. No friends, no family - just himself, his living-room gym and one final dream.

Ali Jawad in training ahead of his Tokyo 2020 bid (UK Sport – The National Lottery)

“When the first lockdown was announced, I got a phone call from my mum saying ‘Right, come home’ to London. I was like ‘Nope!’ I told her I’ve got to use this five-to-six months, even a whole year, to give myself the best foundation to come out of this and really attack next summer now.

“Because of my Crohn's, I can’t take a risk with anybody from London. And it’s a risk to get to London as well - three hours away! They understood eventually but it took a lot of convincing. They know I’ve got a goal so big that I’m going to have to make that kind of sacrifice. I couldn’t take the path that I had taken just to go home at that point.”

With Crohn’s, Jawad has “more or less” been living cautiously since achieving bronze in 2018’s Commonwealth Games. His current set-up, while more intensive, does not faze him.

“I think I adapt to things well. Because I was used to self-isolating anyway for the last two years. I had things in place to live like this. Even my diet, it’s so specialised I have to be extra careful, so I’m the best when it comes to preparing my own food. I’ve been educating myself on being a better, healthier baker.”

More time means Jawad no longer has to push himself to lift heavier weights to fast-track his training, which contributed to an increase in injuries. His regime, which focuses on the velocity of movement and repetition rather than weight on the bar, is designed to ensure he is primed to lift heavy in competition - like a marathon runner not running a marathon before they need to. A high risk “do it on the day” strategy, but one he is utterly committed to.

Ali Jawad wins bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 (Getty Images)

In the future are two yet-to-be-confirmed dates in March and June when there are due to be events that contribute towards ranking points, in the United Kingdom and Dubai. At this stage, the latter is more likely to go ahead than the former meaning it could be a single event shootout to determine which eight seals an Paralympic spot. Given the recent history of the event and its competitors, Jawad reckons benching over 170kg will be enough to guarantee safe passage to his third and final Games.

Even with this twist of fate and his positivity, Jawad is self-aware. Talk of maintaining his drive during the pandemic giving him an advantage over those who may struggle during lockdown comes in the same breath as an acceptance that just as many will have used this time to set new personal bests. “ I’m not the best in my class. But I think because I’ve had such a good couple of lockdowns I’ve bridged that gap between the best guys and me.”

Scratch the surface and it’s clear Jawad is not just doing it for himself. “I’ll probably never get back to the Ali of Rio,” he says, with clarity rather than sadness. It is a rare kind of peace to carry, especially for an active powerlifter in a world subsists on bravado. 

But the fire still burns, it just fuels a greater sense of duty: to his family who raised him from humble beginnings in Tottenham; his coaches who have driven him, and the National Lottery, who have had him on their world-class performance programme since he was 16. Jawad is one of over 1,100 elite athletes they fund on the UK Sport scheme, allowing him to train full time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering technology, science and medical support.

“I’d never have been able to achieve anything I had done without the team around me. These are things a normal person wouldn't think of going for. I’ve accepted my situation in life, and it’s about what is the best circumstance for everyone.

“The last four years I haven’t been the Ali of old. Not medalling, always sick. Next year I have a chance to repay that.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in