Paralympics: UAE’s Mohammed Khalaf ‘younger than ever’ after winning powerlifting gold

Emirati powerlifter, competing at his fifth successive Paralympic Games, raises 220kg in the under-88kg event to complete a metallic, medallic hat-trick. Gary Meenaghan reports from Rio de Janeiro.
Gold medalist Mohammed Khalaf of the UAE poses with his medal on the podium after lifting 220kgs to claim gold in the men's under-88kg powerlifting competition at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Sergio Moraes / Reuters
Gold medalist Mohammed Khalaf of the UAE poses with his medal on the podium after lifting 220kgs to claim gold in the men's under-88kg powerlifting competition at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Sergio Moraes / Reuters

RIO DE JANEIRO // With sweat dripping from his brow and three fingers raised proudly in the air, Mohammed Khalaf knew he had achieved his goal. The Emirati powerlifter, competing at his fifth successive Paralympic Games, had just raised 220kg in the under-88kg event and his smile and celebration suggested confidence it would be enough to secure the gold medal he had come for. And complete a metallic, medallic hat-trick.

This was not arrogance though; it was experience. Khalaf had been here before: In Athens in 2004, he lifted 217.5kg in the under-82.5kg category to win the Emirates its first gold medal in Paralympic sport. Four years later in Beijing, competing in under-90kg and struggling with an elbow injury, he lifted 10kg more, taking silver behind China’s Cai Huichao, who lifted 235kg.

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On Tuesday, at the RioCentro Pavilion, he saw his two toughest opponents fail in their three attempts. He then watched, first, Brazil’s Evanio da Silva, and then Mongolia’s Sodnompiljee Enkhbayar come up 10kg short. Their failures rendered his earlier lift unsurpassable, crowning him a two-time gold-medallist and allowing heartfelt celebrations with coach Titou Kacem.

The result means Khalaf, 47, can now display a trio of medals in his Barsha villa, and has more golds at the Paralympics than his entire country has managed at Olympic level.

“I cannot express my feelings for winning another gold,” said Khalaf, who became the oldest powerlifter to win gold at Rio 2016. “This medal feels more special than Athens because in Rio I have been struggling a little with injury. I had put all my power into these Games and, thanks to God, I won. For me, my age is not important; it is the experience that makes the difference — plus, after this victory, I feel younger than ever!”

Moroccan coach Kacem, who has worked with Khalaf for the best part of 20 years, revealed the Emirati had delayed an operation on his left shoulder until after the Paralympics to compete here.

“Our preparations were affected by the injury, of course,” Kacem said. “It was not easy. We had to think about our tactics to get on the podium. But when we saw the Chinese and Iranian athletes failing on their three attempts, it gave us renewed belief that we could achieve something. If not for the injury, maybe Mohammed could have set a new world record.”

It has been a long journey for Khalaf. Born in Qatar, he spent the first decade of his life hidden from view by his parents, who worried Arab society was not ready to accept their child, who had lost the use of his legs after contracting polio. Age 10, the family moved to Abu Dhabi where he underwent rehabilitation and was accepted to study at a mainstream government school and later a technical college.

In 1991, after noticing members of Dubai Special Needs Club competing in a marathon in Abu Dhabi, his interest was piqued. He made some tentative enquiries and although initially reluctant to move north, eventually he made the switch together with his uncle to the bright lights of Dubai. Starting out training in shot put and discus, Khalaf eventually switched to powerlifting. Within nine years he was rolling his chair to the top of the podium in Athens.

“When I first started, I had no focus,” he said. “I was trying everything: athletics, powerlifting, whatever. It was only in 1995 when I decided to focus only on powerlifting that things started happening.”

When he returned from Greece with his gold, he was greeted by a crowd of supporters at Dubai International Airport. He later met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, who told him: “Never think you are at the top of the mountain; there are always higher places to reach. There is no need to think about coming back down the mountain yet.”

Mohammed’s mountain must be monolithic by now. Since Athens, he has won silver at the 2006 world championships in Busan, silver at Beijing 2008, qualified for London 2012 before having to withdraw through injury, gold at the 2014 Asian Paralympics in Incheon, and several titles in regional Arab championships. Little comes close to the quadrennial Paralympics proper though, he says.

“I have been to five Games now, but I still get as excited as if it was my first. Competing against the best, being in the Village among the other athletes — it’s a very special experience. Everything that happens here gives you more power and belief that you can achieve special things,” he said. “Already I am thinking about Tokyo.”

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Published: September 13, 2016 04:00 AM


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