ABU DHABI // Swimming, cycling and running a total of 223km is not easy for any athlete. But Moroccan-born Mohammed Lahna, who has been without the use of his right leg since birth, has never really had things easy and is always up for a challenge.
He is one of a handful of para-athletes in today's inaugural Abu Dhabi International Triathlon. The event will see athletes swim 3km in the sea near the Emirates Palace hotel before cycling 200km around Abu Dhabi Island and running 20km along the Corniche. Speak to any sportsman, and they will tell you that the triathlon requires a special kind of grit and determination. In addition to enormous physical stamina, competitors need vast reserves of psychological strength to drive their bodies through the pain barrier and beyond.
Starting at a little after 6am, the triathletes will battle through up to nine hours of relentless physical challenges designed to test their bodies to the limit, all the time racing against the clock. Lahna, who was 28 on Thursday, is already a veteran of more than half a dozen events, despite competing for the first time only in 2008. He was born with agenesis, a rare medical condition in which a limb fails to develop normally. It left him with a withered and shrunken right leg, which has no bones and little to no strength.
Instead of complaining about the hand that fate dealt him, Lahna kept a positive attitude. "I am just looking forward to getting started," he grinned. "I have always been sporty. When I was around 10, I started swimming and I just loved it. It just carried on from there. "I had always been interested in trying to do a triathlon, just to see if I could do it, but it was not possible. "I read magazines and saw programmes on the television about it, but, all throughout my childhood, I had only a homemade prosthetic leg."
Buying a professionally made artificial limb was far beyond the means of his father, who drives a taxi to support his wife and Lahna's three younger brothers and younger sister. Lahna had to make do with what he had. "It was made out of wood, leather and aluminium and it didn't have a joint at the knee, so I always had to keep it straight. It was uncomfortable, but it worked." His life was transformed in 2004 when a team of French doctors visited Morocco to help teach local technicians how to design and build prosthetics.
"They gave them away for free. I was one of the first people to have one. I suppose I was a bit of a guinea pig, but I didn't mind. "It changed my life. I could move about more easily. I could ride a bike. I could even ride a motorbike. "That year, I went on a motorbike road trip. I went up into the Atlas Mountains and did a 500km ride. It was amazing." Lahna was determined not to allow his disability to hold him back and decided to realise his dream of competing alongside other triathletes. He began his training and entered his first competition in Yasmine Hammamet, Tunisia, in March 2008.
"I had a terrible cold during the competition and I felt very bad. The sea was very cold at that time of year and I had no wetsuit, but one of the other competitors gave me one to use. The other athletes are very supportive. "It was exhausting and, together with my cold, when I got out of the water I threw up. But it didn't put me off." He completed five more events that year and continued his exhausting schedule into 2009.
Lahna works full-time as a graphic designer in his home city of Casablanca and squeezes in training around his job. "On a good day, I might be able to get two hours of training a day, and a good week means I can train on five days. But my job is not nine to five - I often have to work late. "Every time I compete in an event, I have to make up the time at work. It is hard. It would be better if I could find a sponsor, but it is not easy."
It is more than simply the adrenalin that pushes him to compete. "The triathlon is a good sport for disabled people to be involved in because they are competing alongside the able-bodied, not hidden away in different separate competitions. "It is not just about the pleasure you get from completing a triathlon. It is also about sending an important message that your disability does not define you. "I have encouraged many friends to get involved in events like this and they have really enjoyed it.
"It lifts your spirit and boosts your self-confidence and self-esteem." Lahna has his sights set on the future - and a gold medal. Later this year, he intends to make a bid to become the first disabled Arab to swim the 15km across the Straits of Gibraltar. After that, he hopes to find sponsorship that would allow him to quit his job and train full-time ahead of the 2016 Paralympics, the first time a triathlon will be featured in the games.
Before that, he has an even more daunting prospect. He met Ru-chen, a Chinese-American prosthetics technician, at a sports training camp last year, where she was volunteering. "I am engaged to be married later this year. Hopefully in the summer." @Email:email@example.com