A man possessed: the guiding light of Paralympian Ali Jawad
The Lebanese-born Team GB powerlifter explains what has kept him pressing on in spite of the heavy personal burden he bears
Ali Jawad has no fear. “Nothing scares me,” he says. “That’s why I can watch horror by myself in the dark and not get scared.”
Apart from more terrifying plot devices for stout-hearted aficionados, Jawad firmly believes that what his favourite film genre needs is a disabled hero.
To clarify, the three-time Paralympian powerlifter is not volunteering to take on hordes of hungry undead, antagonistic monsters or malevolent paranormal spirits.
He is, however, planning on writing a script in which the stereotype-busting character saves the day.
“I’m actually quite disappointed with a lot of horror films – they’re just not that scary," he tells The National.
“I’m into zombies and monsters, and a hero at the end of it. I’ve had an idea since I was a kid about casting the lead as a disabled hero. I’ve never really shared it with anybody because I thought, well, I’m not really a screenwriter or anything. But Hollywood hasn’t got a disabled hero and I guess it’s about time that changes.”
Not really being an “entrepreneur or tech person”, either, hasn’t stopped him from developing an app called AccesserCise that will launch next month to fill the void in the disability fitness market.
Amid the training regime to reach the Tokyo Paralympics in August, Jawad has also just completed UK Sport’s prestigious International Leadership Programme so that he can “give back”, and is doing a PhD on anti-doping in the Paralympics to help close the “gap between athletes and the administrators making the decisions”.
A foray into the movie industry is what he would do with spare time if he actually had any, along with seeing more of his friends and family. “I’ve missed out on so much,” he says. “I’ve got an 18-month-old niece who hardly knows me because of Covid and my schedule.”
Jawad was born a double leg amputee in Beirut towards the end of the civil war to Lebanese parents who were advised by the attending obstetrician that it might be best if they ended his life.
Considering their son as nothing but a blessing, Nazek and Hussein moved to England when he was six months to offer him the chance of being “normal”, hoping at the very least to give him artificial legs.
A decade later, Jawad would sit in the waiting room of the prosthetic limb clinic and refuse to wear them, saying: “No more, mum. I am normal. This is normal.”
It was a display of the determination that his parents instilled in him from a young age, always treating their firstborn the same as or “probably harsher than” his younger siblings, Abbas, Rasha and Layal.
Consequently, Jawad dreamed big. Aged 5, he told Nazek that one day he was going to play football for Liverpool in the English Premier League.
“My mum started laughing at me,” he recalls. “She sat me down and said: ‘Look, you can’t play football – you’ve got no legs. I said: ‘Oh, yeah! I’ve never seen anybody with no legs play football, that’s a good point. I probably won’t do that then.’”
The intervention did little to curb the young Ali’s sporting ambitions. Months later, he was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of his father watching the 1996 Atlanta Olympics on television.
He was roused just in time to see Michael Johnson propel himself around the track in Nike's custom-made, gold racing spikes to become the only male sprinter to win the 400m and 200m events at the same Games.
“I knew I was witnessing something incredible,” Jawad says of the performance in which Johnson broke the second of the two world records. “From that moment, I just felt like I needed to feel what he was feeling.”
In typical fashion, Jawad decided that he, too, would compete at the Olympics. He gives a self-deprecating smile, saying he had at least realised that “obviously I couldn’t run so I had to find something else”.
Back then, he says, nobody had a clue that there was a four-yearly international competition specifically for athletes with disabilities. “It just wasn’t publicised,” he says, going on to talk about how London 2012 was a Games-changer in terms of the world’s perception of the Paralympics.
“That’s my route,” he remembers thinking as a boy. Though, even knowing what he did then, he could have had no idea just how arduous a journey it would be.
At each difficult juncture, Jawad relied on his adaptability to get him through. Not wanting to be overly protective, his parents sent him to what he describes as “the roughest mainstream school you could ever imagine in Tottenham”, north London. He was the only disabled person there, with no bespoke facilities.
“Being Arab, I was an ethnic minority on top,” he says, “and had to learn English because my parents were very Arabic-speaking at home … they thought, ‘Well, the only way to teach him to adapt is by putting him in that situation and having to do it day to day, on the spot.’”
There seems to have been an awful lot of football in his childhood for a boy without legs, Jawad always demanding that opposition players tackle him as they would anyone else and proving himself to be a mean goalie.
Off the pitch, too, Ali and his equally obsessed brother Abbas drove their mother “nuts”, taking out light bulbs and knocking pictures off the walls as they smashed a football at each other in the long corridors of the family home.
As a teenager, he made sacrifices and developed organisational skills to achieve in class while advancing on the judo mat all the way to national level in the Japanese martial art.
Crohn's disease made me feel disabled for the first time in my life
It came as a crushing blow, then, at 16 to realise that although judo was a Paralympic sport, there was no classification for amputees. Just as he began to think his parents had been right that academia would be the “best way out of my situation”, something fateful happened after a maths exam.
“I wanted to go revise for English,” Jawad says. “I was very upset about not being classified for judo. I thought my pipedream was over so I really needed to focus on my GCSEs. A friend came out of nowhere and said, ‘Let’s go across the road to the gym and just have some fun.’”
The two found a quiet corner where they could bench press weights, something Jawad had never tried before. As he gave it a go, the whole gym fell silent as everyone stared.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. Did I offend people?’ A big guy came up and he’s like: ‘Stay here. I need to go get somebody.’”
Fearing that they were in trouble, the boys were sneaking out of reception when that particular somebody found them: “The old man who owned the gym used to be the coach of the national team,” says Jawad. “He said, ‘What you’ve just done is absolutely crazy and you have to come back.’”
Fast-forward 16 years, and he has just returned from Georgia where a silver in the Para Powerlifting World Cup gave Jawad the best possible chance of qualifying for his fourth and final Paralympics.
A passenger on the flight home testing positive for coronavirus means that he is on the last day of isolating when we speak, but Jawad has been in a self-imposed lockdown for three years to control every aspect of his preparations. “So it doesn’t really faze me," he says.
What his six-year-old self could not foresee that August night in 1996 when his own personal Olympic torch ignited was that he would be hindered all the way by the debilitating effects of Crohn’s disease.
The illness came on without warning the night before Jawad was due to lift at his first Paralympics at Beijing 2008, causing agonising pain, sweating, dehydration and almost preventing him from competing when he lost 3 kilograms in a matter of hours.
Elite sport is hard. There’s a lot at stake. If you can’t laugh it off then you’re not going to enjoy the process
“It made me feel disabled for the first time in my life,” he says, “and that’s crazy to think for somebody with no legs, but I couldn’t do the normal things. Every time I had a flare up, I was literally bedridden, I wasn’t eating, the pain was just constant.”
Initially, Jawad thought he’d be able to take some medication and “be on my way”. When the full implications of the lifelong disease began to sink in, he promised himself that the condition would not retire him from sport; it would be the reason for pressing on.
Since then, Crohn’s has threatened his career many times, forcing him out for months and years, and almost killed him in 2010 when medical staff advised family and friends to prepare for the worst as Jawad lay on the operating table.
“I wasn’t actually scared,” he says. “I thought I was going to survive it. It’s weird but I thought that even though I was going to be under anaesthetic I would be awake mentally and I was going to fight this thing. I wasn’t going to die.”
He recalls that his thoughts turned to London 2012, a Paralympic Games in his home city, and Jawad “didn’t want the parade to go by”. It didn’t, though he narrowly missed out on a medal in fourth place after a controversial judges’ decision.
In Rio 2016, he took silver with a best lift of 190kg, making him the first athlete with Crohn’s to win a medal at a Paralympics – two weeks after the US swimmer Kathleen Baker achieved the same feat in the 100m backstroke at the Olympics.
In spite of the gravity of his situation, Jawad himself is rarely serious. He is a joker who likes to take the mickey out of others and is known for being a bit of a showman at events, flipping off the powerlifting bench and on to his stumps to celebrate in exuberant style.
“Elite sport is hard,” he says. “There’s a lot at stake. If you can’t laugh it off then you’re not going to enjoy the process.”
At 32, Jawad is still young for a powerlifter but talks often about retiring: the times he almost has (too many to list), the inevitable day when he will (next year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham “would be the perfect end to that chapter for now”), the where (“Dubai, my favourite place”).
“It won’t be a full retirement,” he says. “It’ll be more like a sabbatical in terms of going away to focus on finding a solution for my health. If there isn’t one, then that’s it. If there is, then who knows?”
The United Arab Emirate was the setting for Jawad’s proudest moment when he won the world title in 2014, and will host the last qualifier later this month that will determine whether he goes to Tokyo.
“If I do make it to the Games, it will be to make up the numbers,” Jawad says. “It won’t be for any sort of medal, let alone gold ...
“That old Ali’s gone, and people need to accept that I’m not competitive any more. I am going to fail in terms of having anything around my neck, but I’m not going to fail to apply myself in the best way I can to push Crohn’s to the very limit of where anyone’s ever pushed it.
“I didn’t give up. I can look at myself in the mirror and be satisfied in 10 years that I’ve got no regrets. I’m going to have none.”
There's no guarantee of the fairytale ending that Jawad had hoped for, but the staying power to see the story through no matter the outcome has been the same kind of incredible that inspired it in the first place. Even Michael Johnson couldn’t argue with that.
Updated: June 10, 2021 08:24 PM