Inside story: How Mutaz Barshim leapt into stardom

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Barshim during training in Malmo last week ahead of the World Championships.

Mutaz Essa Barshim lets out a huge roar as he faces the camera during a photo shoot at his training base in Malmo, Sweden.

Standing at the centre of the quaint indoor track where he’s been preparing for the upcoming World Championships, the Qatari high jumper seamlessly switches between a stream of different emotions upon demand as the photographer takes one snap after the other.

Ecstasy, nonchalance, intensity, showboating… Barshim delivers each sentiment perfectly, adding a signature swagger that comes off as both authentic and laidback.

If Barshim wasn’t a world champion athlete, he would have easily found a career in acting. Not many sportsmen are that natural in front of the camera.

The 24-year-old is miming lyrics to a Lil Wayne song blasting from the speakers, which fittingly is about being on top of the world “with only heaven right above”. For someone who is currently at the top echelons of his sport and whose life’s mission is to jump higher and higher, Barshim obviously relates to what his favourite rapper is going on about.

Fun crew: Barshim (r) and his coach Stanley share a laugh with Sport360's Reem Abulleil

Fun crew: Barshim (r) and his coach Stanley share a laugh with Sport360’s Reem Abulleil

He rarely takes his Beats headphones off which he wears on top of a custom-made cap that has “What Gravity huh?!!” printed across the front. A logo of his initials placed between a set of wings is on the side of the hat. Barshim designed it himself and uses it as a constant reminder of what his journey is all about.

“I made that because me, as a high jumper, I feel like I’m flying, I defy gravity. I feel like gravity doesn’t affect me. So when people say gravity, I say ‘what gravity?’” he tells Sport360 with a grin.

The world indoor champion and Olympic bronze medallist is the best jumper of his generation. Last year, he completed the second-highest jump in the history of the sport by clearing 2.43m and he is now just two centimetres shy of Javier Sotomayor’s 22-year-old world record of 2.45m.

Born and raised in Doha, Qatar, Barshim – whose parents are of Sudanese origin – is an anomaly in a country that is more known for importing athletes rather than producing them. Which begs the question: how did Barshim get to become one of the best high jumpers the sport has ever seen?

There may be a lack of role models in athletics in this part of the world but not for Barshim, who grew up with one. His father was a race-walker who was competitive at the regional level.

“That’s how I got inspired to be a track and field athlete in the first place because he always took me with him to the track. One of the biggest moments that inspired me is that I saw him on TV finishing first in a race in a Gulf Championship, I was jumping in front of the TV,” recalls Barshim.

Wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, Barshim started as a competitive race-walker before switching to endurance running. He never really enjoyed either though and he suggested to his coach at Al Rayyan Club to have a go at jumping.

He took up all three disciplines, long jump, triple jump and high jump before specialising in the latter at the age of 14.

“Jumping was much more fun for me because it was me and other kids jumping on a trampoline,” says Barshim.

He fell in love with the sport but he admittedly was not great at it.

“Until the age of 17 I was always the worst,” he concedes.

“So there were a lot of people in my group doing it and they were much better than me. I never felt like I was someone special.

“But my father always told me ‘keep doing what you’re doing it’s hard work, be patient, that’s what’s going to make the difference’. So I kept going no matter what.”

Barshim started attending Aspire Academy, balancing his time between his studies and training and when he cleared 2 metres for the first time aged 16, he felt it was a significant milestone that helped him take the sport more seriously.

He graduated from Aspire in 2009 and enrolled in Qatar University to study sports management and business. That year, Barshim won his first-ever medal, a bronze at a Gulf Championship in Saudi Arabia with a 2.14m clearance.

“Until the age of 17 I was always the worst” – Barshim 

“That moment I think it was a big change for me, I thought ‘I’m a different athlete so I should focus on the moment’. A couple of months later I met my coach,” he says.

Barshim’s coach is a Polish-born Swede called Stanislaw Szczyrba, who is responsible for taking him from barely clearing 2.10m to comfortably jumping 2.40m and above.

Barshim calls him Stanley and the pair are a dynamic duo. They share a sense of humour and have a relationship that must be the envy of many athletes and coaches out there. Stanley speaks a mix of English, Polish and Swedish to his protégé and it is only Barshim who can decipher what he is saying most of the time.

During their training session in Malmo, Stanley instructs Barshim to make the slightest of adjustments as the Qatari jogs, stretches, skips and jumps. Between the stints of seriousness, the pair share a laugh only they can understand.

Seeing the duo in action, it’s hard to believe they did not get along when they first met. The Qatar Athletics Association had hired Stanley to take over the national team in 2009 and the Pole did not make a good first impression on the then 18-year-old Barshim.

“Oooofff I wanted to kick him out at the beginning. It wasn’t easy,” giggles Barshim. “He was crazy, he was a hard coach. He doesn’t mess around, he knows what he’s doing and we weren’t professional at all.

“Training would start at 5:00, we’d come in at 5:30, walking, no shoes on and he would go crazy. He would scream, make us run like 1500s… everything. I was like ‘he’s crazy, I’m a high jumper, why would I run 1500m?’ I was thinking ‘he’s got to go, I’m not going to work with him’.”

Stanley was not very happy with him either.  “Should I say the truth?” the Polish coach laughs when he’s asked about his first impression of Barshim.

“I was ready to leave Qatar. After four months I was ready to go. The weather was terrible for me. It’s not so easy to live in Qatar for me and my family.”

But even though the two weren’t clicking, Stanley never stopped watching Barshim closely. He once saw him jump while playing basketball and told him he believed he could be jumping 2.30m within a few months, even though Barshim’s personal best at the time was a mere 2.14m. Stanley told himself: “If I’m staying in Qatar I’m staying for this boy.”

He asked Barshim to quit university and dedicate himself solely to the sport. Barshim’s father was on board with the idea but his mother took some persuasion.

“Stanley started to talk to me every day, telling me ‘you have natural talent, you just have to work on it, we have to put the right technique, we have to make an effort’,” says Barshim.

“Then one day after a lot of talking about it, I decided I’m going to drop my course, go on a training camp with him and give it a try.”

Within a year, he was clearing 2.30m to become the 2010 world junior champion in Canada. He and Stanley had earned each others’ trust and the result was remarkable.

Together they’ve won Olympic bronze in London 2012, silver at the 2013 Worlds in Moscow, gold at the 2014 World Indoor Championships with Barshim emerging as a local hero back home and a role model of discipline and class.

The same boy who would ditch practice in protest of Stanley’s hiring has become a man who would train for hours, follow recovery methods religiously and go to coffee places but stick to drinking milk. He keeps all his medals and trophies out of sight so he doesn’t lose track of his main goal – that is to achieve the most he possibly can before retirement.

While many would consider growing up in the Middle East a hindrance, Barshim adopted the philosophy of not caring about the limitations of where he came from.

“I don’t feel I’m special because I’m from the Arab world. Because for me everybody is the same it’s just how much you believe in yourself and the kind of work that you put in. Everybody is from Earth, nobody is from space,” he insists. “That’s why I don’t like to talk. If you’ve got something, show me on the track, that’s how I take it.”

Relaxed personality and a true inspiration

On the track, Barshim is explosive, intense, fierce… Off it, he has a relaxed demeanour and is a guy who doesn’t like to do much. He loves Michael Jordan and is inspired by Muhammad Ali.

Besides browsing through Ali’s fights on YouTube, Barshim also enjoys watching cartoons, “everything from Tom & Jerry to Japanese animation,” he says.

Since he spends almost eight months of the year away from his family, either training in Poland or Sweden or traversing the globe to appear in competitions, when he’s in Qatar he just loves to stay at home.

M&Ms: Mutaz (c) and his brother Muamer (r)

M&Ms: Mutaz (c) and his brother Muamer (r)

He has one sister and three brothers, one of which is a high jumper looking to follow in his footsteps. Muamer is two and a half years younger than Barshim.

Muamer has been training with Barshim in Malmo, along with teenager Hamdi Alamine – a young prospect who left his home country of Saudi Arabia to represent Qatar and train alongside a world champion. Stanley’s son Pavel helps coach the younger guys.

The Barshim brothers shared a special moment last fall when they both finished on the podium at the Asian Games, Mutaz taking gold in Incheon and Muamer snatching the bronze medal.

Muamer says he always felt his brother would successful.

“I almost expected it because I remember he was first in the world junior championships and he cleared a height you’d expect from the grownups, not a junior. So after that I knew he would get somewhere with the right practice,” says the younger Barshim.

“He’s very disciplined in his life, following a steady path.

“Your life must be different than everyone else. He has always been quite disciplined and he’s getting better and better. I’ve been following his way to catch up with him.”

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