"I have Down syndrome. I have medals ... I am champion."

The parents of a young man who grew up hearing hurtful questions about his Down syndrome steered him to become a champion in the Special Olympics.

Saif Al Hashmi, who has Down syndrome, has won several medals for swimming at the ParaOlympics and at the World Special Olympics.
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DUBAI // When Saif Al Hashmi went to the park as a child, he did not understand why passers-by asked the hurtful questions of whether he was crazy or sick.

Twenty-five years later, the UAE national does get it when people are being insensitive.

Now he responds with the thumbs-up sign and haltingly says, "I have Down syndrome. I have medals. Excellent, yes? I am excellent swimmer. I am champion."

He has won gold and silver swimming medals for his country at the world and regional Special Olympics since 2004. However, inconsiderate remarks still tear up his mother.

"He does know when people treat him differently," said Sonia Al Hashmi, the chairwoman of the UAE Down Syndrome Association.

"It isn't hard for me when I'm alone, and they ask me why he looks like this. But once he started to realise, then it was hard. We tell him to talk about himself so people can know him better."

There is more awareness about children with disabilities now, compared with years ago when mothers pulled their children away from her at the park and the supermarket.

Yet it has been a hard road.

"The first day I came back from hospital I took him directly outside," Mrs Al Hashmi recalled. "It wasn't easy for me because people stopped and asked me, 'Is he disabled?' They used very strange words. They asked, 'Is he crazy? Is he mad?'"

She soon began to counter these queries with a spirited response of her own.

"I'd say, 'He is excellent, thank you. But are you okay?'"

Mrs Al Hashmi used early-learning toys, bright colours in his room and Sesame Street videos to teach her son. At nursery, he could identify shapes and colours, and could grip a pencil better than others his age.

Still, a parent in his Abu Dhabi nursery asked that he leave the class because she was afraid he would hurt her son. Mrs Al Hashmi was relieved when his teacher leapt to his defence and refused.

Some time later, she had a chance meeting with a woman in Texas who spoke of her brother with Down syndrome, and how he won medals in the Special Olympics. That inspired Mrs Al Hashmi and her husband to make the Special Olympics a focus for Saif.

At first he was afraid of the water. It took a year to help him overcome his fear by playing with toys in an empty bathtub. Then, his parents gradually added water. Later, he began swimming and biking sessions to build his back and leg muscles.

At 14, he trained at Dubai's Al Thiqah Club for Handicapped, and began his medal-winning spree.

Mrs Al Hashmi says she deals with Saif much like her five younger children: by being attentive and firm.

"Our story has sadness, difficulty, challenges, but a happy ending," she said.

"I tell parents: 'Be positive, happy and proud of your children and they will really be very special.'"