Ahead of the World Para Powerlifting Championships in Mexico City – rearranged after an earthquake struck the city in September – Nick Friend speaks to Paralympic silver-medalist Ali Jawad about a life story that few could even begin to imagine.
“The doctor said to me the night before the operation that I’d have to prepare my friends and family for the worst,” Ali Jawad discloses as we discuss a life and career that have encountered obstacles at almost every step – both physical and emotional. When triumph has beckoned, tragedy has struck. Yet, from each heartbreak, resilience and a Herculean commitment have dragged Jawad back from the brink. The Loughborough-based powerlifter is an utterly incredible man.
“Having no legs – to me – is no problem. It’s normal. It’s all I’ve ever known. For me, abnormal is somebody with legs. It’s never stopped me at all so I’ve never really considered myself disabled in that sense because I was doing everything that everyone else did. But Crohn’s made me feel like I was disabled because I wasn’t able to do things that I normally would. It stopped me doing the natural things that I’d do normally and it took about four or five years before I got to grips with how my body worked and how I could reduce my symptoms and try to have a normal life. It’s still tough now.”
When the 28-year-old won silver in Rio last summer, it brought relative closure to a Paralympic nightmare that had begun as a childhood dream.
“Since I was six,” he tells me, “I wanted to represent Paralympics GB at the Paralympic Games.”
Born in Lebanon without legs at the height of the country’s conflict with Israel, Jawad moved to England with his family, settling in Tottenham. Despite arriving with nothing, Jawad has nothing but happy memories of a childhood whose opportunities he cherishes.
“My parents didn’t speak a word of English and had no qualifications at all so for them, it was very hard. I was lucky – I went through the school system and my memories of my childhood were very good. I went to a mainstream school, they always included me in PE, I never did anything different, I was always in the popular groups. The kids didn’t treat me differently either. So I had a very good childhood in terms of trying a lot of different sports and being active.
“I would never have had the opportunities I’ve had here had I stayed back in Lebanon because of the conflict and the way in which disabled people were treated back then.”
It was in judo where Jawad found his initial calling. However, with no amputee category for judokas at the Paralympics and with GCSEs on the horizon, he gave up the sport to focus on his studies. Indeed, it was only by a moment of fortune in a decrepit gym that a future Paralympic powerlifter was ever even discovered.
“I was very sceptical,” he confesses of his initial reaction. I was very intimidated by the environment. This gym was very rundown, very old, loads of leaks everywhere – proper Rocky Balboa style. It was an atmosphere that I was quite intimidated by. Obviously, as a kid I’d never really been in that environment. I started bench-pressing and the whole gym basically stopped and this big guy came up to me and told me that I should stay where I was sitting.
“I thought I’d done something wrong because it was my first day. I thought: ‘crap, we’re in trouble here and I don’t know why.’ We tried to get out but unfortunately, with the way the gym worked, to get out you had to get past reception so you’d be seen. This old man came out of his office and started asking a lot of questions about where I was from and how old I was and what I weighed, which I thought was weird. He asked if it was my first time in the gym and then I told him that it was actually my first day doing weights ever. Then his eyes just lit up. He asked me if I knew what I’d just done and, of course, I had no idea. He told me I’d just lifted 100kg.”
Jawad’s reaction – he confesses – was nonplussed. Not only was he unaware of its significance, having never entered a gym before in his life; but his arm strength was both natural and crucial for an amputee teenager.
“Being an amputee, my arms become my legs,” he explains. “From an early age, I had to lift myself up without really realising that I was doing it.”
From this extraordinary base, a promising career was born, with Jawad dominating the junior ranks before surpassing his coach’s own targets and qualifying for the Beijing Paralympics at the age of just 19.
Yet, it was here, with Jawad on the very cusp of achieving his lifelong dream, that a near-decade of horrendous ill-fortune would begin. At first, he passed the symptoms off as a bug – part and parcel of living in an Olympic village saturated with athletes, he thought.
“The night before I competed everything was going really well. I had actually lifted a weight four days previously that would actually have won me bronze on the day, which was nuts. That’s how frustrating it was.
“I thought I’d just been unlucky and that I’d go away and learn from it, I’d still compete. But then I lost three kilos overnight, which wasn’t good.
“I thought I’d learn from it and come back stronger. But it turned into the worst nightmare I could possibly imagine.”
It would be nine months before Jawad was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s, an incurable bowel disease – a moment that was, at first, a relief of sorts.
“When I got diagnosed, it was actually a relief that it wasn’t cancer, which is what they were testing for. But also, it was just a relief that I’d been diagnosed with something and I wasn’t making it up. I didn’t know what Crohn’s was and I actually sort of said to the doctor: ‘Give me a pill and it’ll go away.’ And he just said to me: ‘Well no, this can’t be cured. This is a lifelong illness.’
“And I just looked at him speechless. He said that it was going to change my life.”
At the time, no Crohn’s sufferer had ever won a Paralympic medal. Although desperate to prove doctors wrong, their reasoning quickly became clear.
“I underestimated the power of the disease. I tried to come back and it got worse. It was ridiculous. It actually made me retire in 2009,” he says.
The Paralympic dream was over – aged just 19. When Jawad survived his life-threatening operation the following year, powerlifting could scarcely have been further from his mind. However, treating the procedure’s success as the chance for a new beginning, he launched a daring comeback.
“The only advice I had when it came to exercise was that I shouldn’t exercise for six months”, laughs Jawad as he recalls his response. “But I started training two weeks after the operation, which was very scary for my stitches.
“Meanwhile, I managed to get on the Commonwealth Games team within four months which, for me, was the first time I felt that I’d won a little battle with Crohn’s. It made me realise that maybe I could win the war as well.” His reaction in this extreme adversity seeks to reinforce the sheer bloody-mindedness of an athlete unflinchingly set on his dream.
Another unlikely triumph would soon follow; a tenth-place finish in a Paralympic qualifying event secured a feat that just weeks beforehand was unimaginable.
“I have no idea how I did it. It was like a miracle. I managed to get into the top ten, which I needed to qualify automatically and I qualified in tenth, basically.”
“In the four years leading up to London, I’d only been able to train for six months. It was crazy that I was going to make it so my aim was really to beat my ranking.
“I thought that the only way I was going to do this was if I gave it everything. I didn’t want to have any regrets. I didn’t want to go to London and go well and finish tenth when I could have done better. So I moved to Leeds in December 2011 to be away from the distractions of London. And literally, I was like a buddha for six months. I was doing my best to be in some sort of shape so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.”
What happened next would test the drive of even this remarkable man. Audibly emotional as he recalls tumbling from ecstasy to despair, Jawad classes his London experience as the lowest of his tumultuous life.
A stunning lift looked to have secured the most improbable of silver medals in front of a raucous home crowd, only for the jury to controversially declare a technical fault, demanding an immediate re-lift and robbing Jawad of his moment.
“I don’t know how I’ve recovered from it, to be honest,” he admits. “At the time, I genuinely thought I’d never get over it. It wasn’t just the actual day and the controversy surrounding it. It was the process of the four years. I’d nearly died, the operation, the retirement. I’d fought so much physically and mentally just to be there and then suddenly I got given a little bit of hope in those five months where I’d just accelerated at a rate that wasn’t expected and suddenly I’d put myself in a position where I was so close to a medal that, in my opinion, would have been one of the greatest comebacks ever. And then, it turned out that because of the circumstances on the day, I never got my place on the podium.”
Coming from Jawad, an athlete who understands perspective and life’s rich tapestry better than most, the crushing effect that the decision had on him highlights just how cruel a moment it was.
“It was literally the hardest moment of my life.
“I knew what I’d put in and I knew the sacrifices that I’d had to put in. I knew that actually I’d just lifted a medal weight. I did. It’s on video. I look back at it now and it’s a lift, it’s a great lift. Unfortunately, the referee and the jury were undecided and they disagreed.”
The rules have since changed to ensure that lifters will be given time to recover before a re-lift – not that it helped Jawad.
“To be honest, I wanted to retire. I thought that there was a reason why a Crohn’s sufferer had never won a Paralympic medal and this was just the icing on the cake really. I felt that I wasn’t destined to win a Paralympic medal. I thought I’d given myself the best shot I could in the circumstances and then it wasn’t even me that failed – it was other people. So I actually thought about retiring straight afterwards. I hated the sport, I hated the circumstances that I was in, I hated the fact that I had Crohn’s. And literally, the four years had gone full circle. I felt like the unluckiest person in the world.”
The feeling of the childhood dream falling away once again left Jawad struggling, with his Crohn’s resurfacing as a result.
“I was really depressed and I binged a lot. My diet went out the window and I caused my health to flare again. I was self-punishing myself just to try and forget what had happened. And then it got to December 2012 when I sat down with my team and I just said that that was me done, that I wasn’t going to come back.”
Yet, convinced to give the dream one last go with a four-year run at it, Jawad set his sights on Rio. A World Championships gold in 2014 justified the comeback but still would never fully temper the harrowing disappointment of London.
“For me, my memory had to be to lay the ghost to bed at the Games. Yes, winning the World Championships was incredible because our Worlds Championships are harder to win than the Paralympic Games.
“But having said that, the memory of the Games haunted me every day for four years – I’m not kidding. It literally haunted me. I thought about it every day in that cycle for the next four years. In my mind, I had to medal at the Games just to put it to bed.”
And finally, after eight years of trying and a lifetime of dreaming, it was mission accomplished. A silver medal behind the great Egyptian Sherif Othman and Ali Jawad had his Paralympic medal.
Of course, no athlete with the determination of Jawad would settle for just silver. For all the joy that the elusive silver medal brought him, a gold in Tokyo, he suggests, would be the perfect way to sign off from a sport to which this extraordinary individual has given so much in the face of even more.
“I’ve always said that I want a gold medal,” he says. “If I had one, that’d be my career sorted.”
It would be a special end – and nobody would dare begrudge him it.
Featured photograph: Metis Athlete