There has been an Emirati gracefully lifting the UAE name throughout Paralympic history for over a decade, snatching two medals in an illustrious career at the elite Games – that man is Mohammed Khamis Khalaf.
In Athens 2004, the UAE got its first medal in Olympic history when Sheikh Ahmad bin Mohammad bin Hasher Al Maktoum won the gold in shooting but it was Khalaf who doubled the joy for the nation when he became the first Emirati to win a gold medal in the Games’ Paralympic counterpart, thanks to his powerlifting heroics in the 217kg weight category.
And as Khalaf carved his name in the history books the world got a glimpse of the kind of warrior he really is. The 42-year-old, who suffered leg paralysis caused by polio when he was a child, was living in Abu Dhabi as a part-time student when his friends first told him about the Dubai Club for Special Sports almost 20 years ago.
“I was mostly curious to come and see the club, because it sounded bizarre that a handicapped person could actually be an athlete,” Khalaf told Sport360°. “I wasn’t convinced it was possible.”
“The day I tried it out, I got to see for the first time that a handicapped person doesn’t just do sport for fun. He can actually train hard and compete.”
Khalaf moved to Dubai and started training at the club in athletics, mainly wheelchair racing, before he was lured into powerlifting by coach Tito Qassem, and the way Khalaf describes it, it seems like it was love at first lift.
His inaugural competition was the World Powerlifting Championship in Dubai in 1998. He finished ninth amongst 24 lifters and he instantly knew that he had a real challenge ahead of him.
“I was stunned because I honestly thought I could never reach the level of the champions I saw that day,” he admitted. And so a journey of hard work and perseverance began.
His first big break came at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. Qualifying was tricky but after competing everywhere from the Middle East to New Zealand he sealed a qualification spot with an average 185kg lift.
In Sydney, Khalaf surprised himself let alone everybody else by finishing fourth. He felt he had outdone himself as he came so close to winning a medal on his first Paralympic venture. “Sydney is what really gave me some extra motivation and made me insist on working harder towards Athens,” he recalls.
And indeed it sparked a flame in Khalaf, who marched on grabbing gold medals left, right and centre before he made it to Athens for his second Paralympics participation in 2004.
He remembers he was intimidated upon his arrival: “When I got to Athens the sight of the other lifters destroyed me. But somehow I persevered and won the gold. I really couldn’t believe it. I expected I would win a medal but definitely not the gold,” he said with a laugh.
Four years later, Khalaf was still going strong as he went to Beijing as the Paralympic champion – this time, he was the one to beat. But luck was not on his side and he injured his right elbow the second he arrived in China struggling with unfamiliar cold conditions.
He considered pulling out but Khalaf is no quitter and his coach Qassem urged him to participate, after all, these were the Paralympic Games and he had travelled halfway across the world hoping for a second gold.
While he overcame many difficulties throughout his life, Beijing was the toughest experience in his powerlifting career. He forced himself to compete through injury and with some extraordinary might, he managed to win the silver medal behind a Chinese Paralympic debutant.
Unfortunately, his injury deteriorated from then on until he eventually had surgery in May last year, and the tedious road of rehabilitation started. Barely six months into his recovery, he competed at the Asian Para Games in Guangzhou last December, and despite not being fully fit, he won the silver medal for the UAE.
Since then, Khalaf has been pushing himself to retain his world-class form and with London 2012 in sight, a smiling Khalaf is confident in his chances as he believes he is back to almost 80 per cent of his top level.
When asked what pushes him to continue in the sport, having already achieved top accolades on all regional, continental and worldwide stages he promptly said: “I fell in love with this sport. It symbolises challenge and strength. If you don’t train for a week you come back and have to start from scratch. This is why I admire powerlifting – because you can never stop.”
Lucky for us, it doesn’t seem like he will any time soon.
Mohammed Khamis Khalaf – Hitting the gold rush
1998- 2001 Early success
Wins his first gold at the International Championships in New Zealand in the 185.7kg category. Two more golds follow in Spain and Belgium while in 2001, at the International Championship in Cardiff, he takes gold at 207kg.
2002-2003 Pushing hard
His first medal at the Gulf Championship, and unsurprisingly it’s a gold, in the 212.5 kg category.
2004-2005 Athens glory
The crowning achievement of a remarkable journey as Paralympic gold is won at 217kg. Further golds come at the Asian Championship and Gulf Championship in Saudi Arabia.
2007-present day Establishing authority
Gulf Championship gold in Dubai and at the Arab Championship in Egypt in the 222.5kg category. Since 2007 has won two silvers at the Asian Championships in Malaysia and in Bejing in 2010.