Grassroots to Glory - Ali Jawad
This may be powerlifter Ali Jawad's last Paralympics, but his new world-changing campaign has just begun.
When Ali Jawad was born without legs in war-torn Lebanon, doctors advised his parents to ‘get rid of him.’
He’s spent the 32 years since defying doubters and testing his limits, now leading to this—his fourth appearance as a powerlifter at the Paralympic Games.
With Ali barely more than a babe in arms, his parents fled 2,000 miles to the UK. Without a word of English, they settled in north London and the community of Tottenham.
His family had no sporting background, but when you speak to Ali it comes as no surprise that his perky personality and indomitable spirit led him to pursuing a Paralympic career.
“I knew from when I was about six that I wanted to be at that level,” said Ali, who went to Irlam Primary School.
“My parents weren’t sporty, I didn’t know what sport I wanted to do or how to get into it. But my dream was to make the Games and it was the thing I focused on. I sacrificed my whole life, my soul, to get there and it’s been a rollercoaster.”
Football was Ali's first love - if you follow him on Twitter, you will never walk alone - yet a first tantalising taste of the Paralympic dream came in the sport of judo.
He practised the martial art for four years from the age of 11 and was unbeaten as a cadet, but was crushed when he found out at 15 that there was no amputee category at the Games.
As a teenager, he catapulted himself onto the powerlifting scene with a casual 100kg lift.
He remembers the words of the gym owner: “That’s a lot of weight for a kid. You should come back.”
Come back he did - firing - breaking the British senior record four times over at the age of 19 to qualify for a first Paralympics at Beijing 2008.
Ali made it onto the platform for his Games debut, but little else.
“I don't think I was ready for it,” he reflected.
“You can imagine it, you can watch it on TV, you can get as much advice as you want, but there are so many emotions in a short space of time."
“When you get to the village, I wanted to try everything and meet everyone but that actually saps your energy. It was kind of overwhelming.”
Also sapping his energy in China was on the onset of symptoms of Crohn’s disease, which has made an already-rocky road too treacherous for almost anyone but Ali to navigate.
Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel condition, and badly-timed flare-ups have caused him to lose vital weight, miss training and pick up injuries.
Ali's close friend and manager Sam Brearey paints a picture: “People would be very surprised how much his illness had affected him over the last ten years."
“Unless you are injured in and around a major competition, people tend not to notice or pay any attention, but even if you take four weeks off training, that can affect you two years later."
“It feels like every decision we have to make with him and help him through is always a major one. There aren’t any athletes in the world who have to go through that as regularly as Ali does.”
Ali relished performing in front of a partisan home crowd at London 2012 and thought he’d won 56kg silver only for his 189kg lift, enough to medal, to be dismissed by judges.
A Crohn’s flare-up in November 2012 left him staring deeper into the abyss, and the decision of world record holder Sherif Osman to move down a category lengthened the odds of a dream Rio medal.
Ali summoned something deep inside to equal his own 2014 world record at his third Games, lifting 190kg to win silver and proudly becoming the first athlete with Crohn’s to reach a Paralympic podium.
“The pressure was intense, not the people’s pressure, but my own pressure because I had to live for four years and think about 2012,” said Jawad, who is one of over 1,000 athletes to benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing him to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
“I came into Rio in the best shape of my whole life. I felt: ‘I’ve waited four years for this, I have to do it now’.”
Darkness followed the silver light. Post-Rio, Jawad experienced his worst-ever bout of symptoms, leaving him with an unenviable choice.
He could either have a stoma bag permanently fitted or receive stem cell treatment requiring aggressive chemotherapy. Neither was an option when it came to pursuing Tokyo 2020.
So, with characteristic drive, Ali decided to delay the stem cell trial and went back to his team, who presented a new, higher-risk path. He took it.
Jawad sealed his spot at the Games in July, nothing short of a sporting miracle having spent 18 months out of action earlier in the cycle.
“With the negative transformation my body was going to go through, people just thought I wasn't going to qualify for Tokyo,” said Ali.
“For me, I knew three years ago that the medal had gone, but I wanted to push Crohn’s to a level that no human has ever taken it."
“It's been hard, frustrating and challenging and sometimes very dark, the way I've had to live. But I’m going to see it through. Whatever happens at the Games, happens and I've had a very good career.”
Ali is working toward a PhD in anti-doping and is a graduate of UK Sport’s International Leadership Programme.
Brearey adds: “I’d say he’s religiously dedicated. I don’t think I’ve met a more dedicated or resilient athlete in my life."
“The world is unbelievably impressed with Ali knowing probably 30 per cent of the reality of it, but if they knew the whole reality it would be a much different look at who he is as a person.”
In the early days of Covid lockdowns, Ali woke bolt upright in the middle of the night with an idea for a fitness app where users could rate gyms based on accessibility.
Brearey arranged for developers to pitch to Jawad, and Accessercise Fitness was born.
“The aim of the app is to inform, educate and guide people's journeys that are specific to their impairment,” said Ali.
“We can give our ratings data back to the fitness industry and government and if a rating is quite poor, we can help the gym or facility get better."
“I was fast-tracked into an elite team at 19 and never saw the problems on the ground. I’m really excited about this because it captures how users are actually feeling.”
Ali knows what it feels like to shoulder the weight of the world, fighting his personal battles in the knowledge he is waging a war for many thousands unseen and uncelebrated.
There is a certain nobility, a definite bravery, in taking your sport’s biggest platform in the knowledge that you can't compete.
“I'm hoping that people aren't expecting a medal from me in Tokyo,” he said.
“People need to put the old Ali aside and with what I've been through in the last five years, me just making the Games is a medal enough. I won't be anywhere near the medals."
“The aim was just to qualify and that's good enough for me. I hope that people don't view me as any less for it.”
Fat chance. This may be his last Paralympics, but the new Ali’s world-changing campaign has just begun.
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