Iraqi-born US Army vet powers through polio at Paralympics
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'Joining the Army was the least I could do. The country had given me freedom'

Iraqi-born US Army vet powers through polio at Paralympics

Ahmed Shafik spent 14 months in an Iraqi prison for not bringing home a medal. Now, he works two jobs and represents team USA

Ahmed Shafik in Rio, Monday September 12, 2016. (Joe Kusumoto Photography)
Ahmed Shafik in Rio, Monday September 12, 2016. (Joe Kusumoto Photography)

Ahmed Shafik, the lone powerlifter on the US Paralympic team this year, has shown his physical strength many times in competitions. And as his background growing up in Iraq shows, he has equally strong willpower.

Although diagnosed with polio as a child, Shafik eventually rose to become a member of the Iraqi Paralympic team. Under the cruel regime, however, he was later jailed for over a year by his national Olympic committee out of displeasure at his performance in a competition.

He then left for the US as a refugee and ultimately became an American citizen — and a soldier. He served his new country as a translator in the Army and was stationed for two years in his former homeland during the Iraq War.

Coming full circle, he took up powerlifting again and ultimately realized the dream he had not been able to achieve in Iraq by competing in the Paralympic Games under the US flag.

Now in his early 40s, Shafik concluded his powerlifting career on Monday with a sixth-place finish in the men’s competition.

“I hope I didn’t disappoint anybody,” he told The Times of Israel by phone from Rio on Tuesday morning. “Sixth place in the world. If I had pushed myself harder… it just got me. This was my ability. I think I represented the country very well.”

Shafik’s coach, Mary Hodge, praised his performance.

‘This was my ability. I think I represented the country very well’

“We are proud that he represented the USA,” she said, calling him “a hard-working, dedicated athlete who sets high goals and [works] hard to achieve them.”

That’s been the case ever since his childhood days in Iraq where Shafik grew up as the son of Iraqi star weightlifter Abdul Shafik.

“I would see his picture and his friends, big dudes who would come to our house,” Shafik said. “He was always talking about lifting, the records he broke… It motivated me to start lifting weights.”

Because he had polio, he could not lift weights like his father did. So he turned to powerlifting, which is done more in the style of a bench press.

Ahmed Shafik at the Rio Paralympics on Monday, September 12, 2016. (Joe Kusumoto Photography)
Ahmed Shafik at the Rio Paralympics on Monday, September 12, 2016. (Joe Kusumoto Photography)

“Polio, honestly, didn’t affect me at all,” Shafik said. “It encouraged me to do more stuff an able-bodied [person] could do.”

“Having a disability in my leg was kind of hard for me in primary school,” he said, but he found that he had other strengths. “I could do other stuff that my friends could not do.”

This included wrestling.

“In school, I was wrestling people and beat them way before I started competing and lifting weights,” Shafik said. “I was good at school, got good grades. That kind of disability did not affect me at all.”

‘Polio, honestly, didn’t affect me at all . It encouraged me to do more stuff an able-bodied person could do’

Even when it did affect him — he could not join the Iraqi army — he counted it as an advantage.

In 1998, Shafik competed for the Iraqi national team at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Championships in Dubai. He finished fifth. He said this was not good enough for the Iraqi Olympic committee, headed by Uday Hussein, son of Saddam.

“We had very bad Olympic committees,” Shafik recalled. “They expected everybody to win gold or first, it had to be the podium. You would get medals or punishment. I got punished, thrown in prison.”

He said he was jailed for 14 months.

Asked to describe the conditions, he said, “It was bad. It’s a prison, it’s bad.”

Shafik said that the entire team was imprisoned, not just himself.

Ahed Shafik in Rio, with coach Mary Hodge. (Courtesy Mary Hodge)
Ahed Shafik in Rio, with coach Mary Hodge. (Courtesy Mary Hodge)

“It was normal,” he said. “All my teammates [had to win] all golds, all silvers. In order to compete for the country, you had to [bring home a] medal. I kind of knew the consequences. I did not want to go to prison, but I [did] it anyway.”

Upon his release, he said he got his “paperwork ready” and left Iraq for Jordan and then for the US. He credited the UN for helping him get to the US as a refugee.

At that point, he considered his powerlifting days behind him. He said he had injured himself through the sport and “decided not to lift anymore.”

Instead, he settled into a new life far from Iraq — in Tucson, Arizona studying engineering and working at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort.

“It’s really similar to my own country’s weather,” he noted.

Ironically, in less than 10 years, he would go back to Iraq as a member of the US Army.

The year 2007 was important for Shafik. He became a US citizen and he enlisted in the Army as a translator due to his knowledge of both English and Arabic.

‘You had to bring home a medal. I kind of knew the consequences. I did not want to go to prison, but I did it anyway’

“I felt [joining the Army] was the least I could do,” Shafik said. “The country had given me freedom and shelter. I had expected it from my own country.”

As part of his time in the Army, he was deployed to the country of his birth for two years during the Iraq War. He said he served “all over — Baghdad, the south side of Iraq, the west, everywhere.”

Asked how he felt to serve in the Army in his homeland, he said, “I was a US citizen at the time. I was part of the Army. It was my duty. I had no feeling. I had to serve, go back home.”

He had also begun thinking about going back to powerlifting.

“I was still young,” he said. “I still had power.”

Shafik mentioned setting a national record in October 2007 and placing “fourth or fifth” for Team USA at the 2010 World Championships. Then, in 2012, he qualified for the London Paralympics. But he said the pressure of the world stage affected him.

US Paralympic powerlifter Ahmed Shafik with coach Mary Hodge. (Courtesy Mary Hodge)
US Paralympic powerlifter Ahmed Shafik with coach Mary Hodge. (Courtesy Mary Hodge)

“I did my lifts really good,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘It’s good.’ I [lifted] 180 kilograms three times, but the referee didn’t like it. I thought what happened was a technical issue — too fast, or [the lift was] not even. It was probably a little overwhelming for me. That was why I got messed up with technical stuff.”

“I was thinking to retire in 2012. I had a little talk from my coach, my friends, my team. I just postponed the decision and kept training. On the board in my gym, I put ‘Road to Rio,’” he said.

While serving in the US Army, Ahmed Shafik thought about returning to powerlifting. (Mary Hodge)
While serving in the US Army, Ahmed Shafik thought about returning to powerlifting. (Mary Hodge)

And so, on September 8, Shafik was part of Team USA when it entered the Maracana Stadium for the Paralympic opening ceremonies.

He said the ceremonies were “really nice, really cool. I cannot describe it for you. Beautiful, thousands of people, cramming and cheering you. We marched, we looked around. There were US flags everywhere.”

Two days before he arrived in Rio, he became a father for the second time. His son Seif turned a week old on Monday, the day Shafik competed.

Monday was also the beginning of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

“It’s a holiday for us Muslims,” Shafik said. “To compete on the same day as the holiday, it was a good feeling.”

In the competition, Shafik lifted 172 kilograms on his first attempt. His coach, Hodge, called it “a good opening lift.”

‘To be sixth overall in the world, I have a little satisfaction’

But he could not lift 180 kilograms on either of his next two attempts, and finished sixth. Winner Majid Farzin of Iran set a world and Paralympic record by lifting 240 kilograms.

“To be sixth overall in the world, I have a little satisfaction,” Shafik said.

He noted, “I was competing with big guys who actually have full-time lifting and no job other than lift, eat and sleep. Me, I have two jobs and no sponsors. I do it myself. I think, overall, I did good.”

Now he turns his attention back to his growing family and his two jobs, at the Conquistador resort and at his own heating and cooling company.

And yet he cannot forget the sport that helped him develop the strength to overcome growing up with polio and endure over a year in an Iraqi jail.

“Hopefully, come 2020 in Tokyo, we’ll have a bigger team, a strong team, more seeds,” Shafik said. “I told everyone on the team, my coach, that I’m ready to help, [do] everything I could do to get a bigger team.”

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