Abu Al Soud is first Jordanian gymnast to reach Olympics - and he's aiming for gold

As he targets the top medal in the pommel horse at the Paris Games, he talks about how he almost quit the sport

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When Ahmad Abu Al Soud was 15 years old, he considered quitting gymnastics.

The Jordanian had been training since he was four years old but felt like he wasn’t happy with his level and wasn’t satisfied with his results in competitions.

But then a chance encounter helped steer him in a different direction.

“I saw that I was not good enough, I always participated in competitions and did bad. I had lack of confidence,” Abu Al Soud told The National in a Zoom interview this week.

“But I remember a guy telling me, ‘How do you want to impact this earth, how do you want to prove your existence, how can you impact the world, affect the people?’ So I looked at that and I said, ‘I have to do this, I have to deliver a message to all the children, to everyone, that this day I decided to quit but after this day I’m going to make it’.

“So from there everything changed. In 2016 I got my first World Challenge Cup medal and it was really big and I knew I was going to smash everything after that.”

His prediction proved to be accurate.

Abu Al Soud, now 28, has made history on several occasions, and heads to Paris next month as the first ever Jordanian gymnast to qualify for the Olympic Games.

Specialised in the pommel horse, Abu Al Soud claimed his first major international gold medal at the Asian Championships in 2019 and exploded on to the scene three years later when he claimed silver at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Liverpool.

Making the pommel horse podium at Worlds made Abu Al Soud the first Arab gymnast to clinch a medal at a World Championship and he repeated the feat by taking bronze the following year in Antwerp.

“When I went to the 2019 Asian Championship, at that time I knew I was good but in my brain I did not know that I can win a gold medal in the Asian Championship.

“You know Asia is very hard, China and Japan are the kings of gymnastics. So at that time when I earned that gold medal, and my coach told me, ‘You’re going to reach the Olympics’, I laughed, I was like, ‘I’m going to reach the Olympics’. That moment was a turning point for me,” he reflected.

“In Liverpool 2022, I won the silver medal, it was a historical medal for the Arabs and Jordan. It was the step that changed my life.

“It was a dream I was working for for so long. And from then everything changed in my life and the Olympics became like, it’s true, I can do it, I started to believe in myself.”

Hampered by a lower back injury in 2023, Abu Al Soud qualified for the World Championships in Antwerp by competing in just two events. A gold medal there would have earned him direct qualification for the Olympics but he had to settle for bronze and knew he would have to punch his ticket to Paris a different way.

That alternative path was the World Cup series, which consisted of four stops – Cairo (Egypt), Cottbus (Germany), Baku (Azerbaijan), and Doha (Qatar) – staged within a two-month span from February to April 2024.

Gymnasts would accumulate points at each World Cup with the top two in the standings in each apparatus booking their places at the Paris Olympics.

The stakes were high and there was no margin for error but Abu Al Soud rose to the occasion, winning pommel horse gold in Cairo and Doha, and silver in Cottbus to secure the No 1 ranking and officially qualify for the Olympics.

“When I went to Qatar, it was the last World Cup, and it was very hard, all the Olympians and world champions were there, because it was the final one,” Abu Al Soud said.

“I knew before the final that I had qualified to the Olympics because I was ranked No 1. And I got into the final on full energy, I’ve never been like this, like I’m going to eat everything in front of me.

“And thank God I did one of my best routines, I got 15.5 score, which is almost the highest in pommel horse gymnastics. And I won the gold.

“So it was so tiring, full of stress. I recall that from the last year I didn’t take a single day off.”

It was a mentally taxing process but Abu Al Soud was prepared for it. He used meditation and visualisation techniques to ensure he was ready to perform and it paid off.

“I would visualise my routine 10 times in a row, and if I do one mistake in my brain, like imagine if I was falling, I have to repeat them all until I reach 10.

“So this really, really helped me. I had to go all in. It either works or I will say goodbye to my dream. So I really went all in.”

Abu Al Soud got into gymnastics by mere coincidence. He was an active child and when his father saw him frequently jumping and making flips on his bed and around the house, he took him to a gymnastics hall to try out the sport. When he was six, he remembers crying because he had to miss one practice and it was then that he realised this was something he was going to commit to.

Besides scooping medals and achieving unprecedented feats, Abu Al Soud also has the unique honour of having a skill named after him in the FIG Code of Points.

The Abu Al Soud is defined as a “reverse Stockli from cross support on one end to the other” and was officially accepted by the FIG in 2019.

“Me and my coach were training on an element, and we looked at it and we said, ‘Why not do it the other way?’ It’s really hard, because in my element you have to do it without even looking what’s behind you,” Abu Al Soud explained.

“We practised it for like four months then we gave it to the FIG so they can see the video, then we did in the World Challenge Cup and they accepted it.

“It’s just amazing. I always say this joke, you know how Chinese and Japanese guys have hard names, you can’t even spell it? I’m like, now they can spell my name when I do this element. It’s just history, it will be there forever, every time anyone will open the pommel horse code of points, they will see there is a guy there called Abu Al Soud, it’s a legacy.”

While it may seem like Abu Al Soud’s legacy is already secured, he feels his mission will not be complete without an Olympic medal this summer. The Jordanian is eyeing gold in Paris, which would be just the second in his nation’s history at the Games, behind Ahmad Abu Ghaush’s triumph in taekwondo in Rio 2016.

With a clear target in mind and the hopes of an entire country on his shoulders, Abu Al Soud would be forgiven if he is feeling the pressure ahead of the Olympics. But it is a position he has grown accustomed to and he says the overwhelming feeling right now is excitement.

“For me, and with my coach’s mindset, every time we participate in any competition, we always have the gold in our mind. There are many competitions where I could have gotten silver or bronze but we risk it for the gold all the time,” he says.

“So I think for me, I’m looking to the Olympics and pressuring myself with a gold medal, I don’t feel like it’s pressure because I got used to it. I’ve been through hard things. And for me the Olympics is easier than the journey of qualifying to the Olympics. So for me I feel like it’s not that much pressure.”

He added: “At the same time I did historical things for Jordan to be the first, so I already did the big achievement. So that might be a little bit relaxing for me entering the Olympics. But now with the right preparation and being ranked No 1, I think I have the confidence.”

Abu Ghaush’s gold in Rio de Janeiro eight years ago was Jordan’s first medal of any kind at the Olympic Games and it catapulted him to hero status back home and across the Arab region.

In Tokyo 2020, two more medals were earned by Jordanians, with Saleh Al Sharabaty taking silver in taekwondo and Abdelrahman Al Masatfa winning bronze in karate.

For this year’s Olympics, 10 Jordanians have qualified so far in athletics, boxing, gymnastics, table tennis, and taekwondo.

“Individual sports in Jordan is really going up in a really good way. And I believe Ahmad Abu Ghaush’s medal at the Olympic Games it really changed a lot and gave a lot of hope to the other players,” said Abu Al Soud.

“So now, for me as an athlete, I’d really like to inspire other kids that they will reach the Olympics one day and maybe get a medal. So it’s really going up. I wish them all the best of luck. Because I know with our possibilities, it’s really hard to reach what we are reaching, but still anyway we Jordanians we always do it.”

Abu Al Soud is unsure what his next steps will be post-Paris, but he is more inclined to retire if he fulfils his dream and wins a medal. Alongside training and competing, he’s been pursuing a Master’s degree in sports science at Al Ahliyya Amman University and has one more year to complete it.

“I think if I get an Olympic medal, I will have earned all the medals in gymnastics, so I think that would be enough for me,” he mused.

“If I get the right support that I need after the Olympics, I might continue for another round. But I think I might stop and just do academics or maybe open a club or start coaching.

“Because you know, I’ve been training for 25 years now, it’s time to live my life, no breaks. So I’m really tired right now, I can’t give you a word, maybe after the Olympics and the gold medal, maybe, I will just have more energy for the next one. But right now, I’m really tired. I just want to do it and stop.”

* Men’s artistic gymnastics qualification at the Olympics begins on July 27 with the men’s pommel horse final scheduled for August 3.

Updated: June 08, 2024, 8:03 AM