Para athletes from around the world have started traveling to Tokyo ahead of the delayed 2020 Paralympic Games. The Refugee Paralympic Team that was first introduced at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio will have six representatives in Japan who fought hard over the past two years to secure a spot in the Games.
Alia Issa makes history this year as the first woman para athlete to compete in the Paralympic Games representing the Refugee Team.
“I could never imagine in my life that I would be going to the Paralympic Games” Issa, who will be competing in club throw, told The National. For the 20-year-old athlete, the Paralympic Games will be her first major international event. She will also be the first woman athlete to enter the Paralympics Opening ceremony as the Refugee Team will be first in the procession. ”I feel very proud to represent the Refugee Team in the Games."
Despite her Syrian origins, Issa was born in Athens, Greece. Her father, Mohament, arrived in the country from Aleppo in 1994, years before the Syrian civil war that would decimate the country. After four years, Mohament reunited with his wife and their four children at the time. Not long after, Issa and her younger brother were born. “I was born in Greece and now I have received my asylum as a refugee here” she said.
Although Issa had never visited her father's hometown and never saw the cruelty of war like some of her fellow para athletes who are part of the Refugee Team, this doesn’t mean that life treated her kindly. She contracted smallpox aged four and spent more than a month in hospital. “I stayed in the hospital for about 40 days and when I left I couldn’t speak or walk at all. I was like dead, spending all day on the bed” she said. It took months of physical therapy to walk and feet and talk again. However, the extreme fever damaged part of her brain and caused her encephalitis and paracephalitis, which permanently affected her movement and speech, and ultimately changed her life forever.
She says her disability made her a target of ridicule. “When I was at the primary school the other kids made fun of me because of the difficulty I have to speak and walk. And so I didn’t have any friends” she recalls. Her parents enrolled her at a school for children with special needs. ”I felt so much better there” she said.
Tragedy struck when Issa was 16 after her father died of cancer. To overcome her grief, she concentrated on sports. She first started with boccia, a precision ball sport, similar to bocce, and related to bowls and pétanque. She also tried track and field events and cycling with three wheels - but none seemed a good fit. “I didn’t have good balance and I wanted a more dynamic sport” she said.
In 2019 her school gym teacher Michalis Nikopoulos and her now coach Dionysios Koumparis suggested she should try club throw. Issa was hooked straight away. “I loved it since day one” she said, “The first time I tried it, I was throwing in front and I could get it as far as around 7 metres. Then my coach said I should try throwing from the back and I got it at 12 metres."
Club throw was first introduced in the 1960 Paralympic Games in Rome but was dropped from the women’s programme in 1992, only to return for the 2012 London Games.
Issa is currently ranked 15th in the world. Her last competition was on July 11, at the PanHellenic championship in Thessaloniki, Greece, where she threw the club 16.50 metres, a personal best. Before that she competed in Poland, where she narrowly lost out on a medal. In May she had travelled to Switzerland where she finished first in her category.
Issa trains four days a week at Tyrtaios athletic club and her improvement in just two years is nothing short of "phenomenal", Koumparis says. Her coach is confident Issa can go far in Tokyo. “She got the limit for attending the Games only after nine months of training” Koumparis said. “She has a huge progress”.
Attending the Paralympic Games in Tokyo is a dream come true for Issa, but what is even more important for the young para athlete is her family and her parents who have always supported her on every step on the way. “What I want is to be at the final eight and make my coach and my family proud. But most importantly I want to make my dad proud” she said.