Mohammed Khamis Khalaf
With 14 medals to his name, the UAE’s Paralympic powerlifting champion discusses Olympic victories and what it means to fight.
You heard about the Dubai Club for the Disabled, where you’ve trained for over 20 years, from a friend. Do you remember what it was like when you first started?
I had only seen wheelchair basketball before I came to this club. I didn’t know that handicapped people could train professionally or compete. I didn’t know handicapped people could be athletes. I was shy when I first came here! [Laughter.] But then I started to come more and more. I played shot put, discus, and javelin. There was no real powerlifting back then. When I first started training seriously, it was in wheelchair racing for two or three years, and then in 1995 I began powerlifting.
When did you start competing?
The first world championships I competed in were in 1998. I took 10th place, but the experience was good for me because it was the first time I competed with people who were stronger than me. Then in 1999, I went to the New Zealand and Australia Open, and that was the first time I brought home a gold medal.
The next year, you were competing in your first Paralympic Games in Sydney. What was that experience like?
We stayed in the training camp for two months; I didn’t see my family during this time. I was fighting with the training. It was the first time I was in the Olympic Village. And that year in Sydney I came in fourth place. So after Sydney I really started to think, I must go higher than that! So I did everything; I fought with the training as hard as possible. And I competed in any competitions around the world. I didn’t think, this one is a good one to compete in, this one is not; I just went everywhere I could to compete, compete, compete.
In 2002, you participated in the Paralympic Games in Athens. This was a different experience than you had in Sydney.
In Athens I won my first Olympic gold. I was lucky. [Laughter.]
Why do you say “lucky”?
Because I had an injury. I was in much pain during the competition. I was not in perfect condition. But I fought and fought, and the gold came.
I’m proud of Mohammed Khamis Khalaf for his gold medal victory at the Rio 2016 Paralympics. His gold medal win in weightlifting is a message to all our athletes that the only real disability is weak determination and willpower.
H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai
You have competed several times with injuries during the Paralympics but won medals regardless.
In Beijing in 2008, I had an elbow injury. I came in second. Afterward, the elbow injury developed into a problem with my shoulder. I competed in the Asia Championships with the shoulder injury and set a new record for myself of 232 kg. After this record, the pain increased. At the Paralympics in Rio in 2016 I still had this injury with even more pain, but I won a gold medal. I must always keep fighting!
Is it dangerous to compete and train with injuries like these?
It is dangerous! To my name! [Laughter.] The doctors in the UK said that they could not guarantee that after surgery my level of strength would not decrease, so we decided to postpone the operation until after Rio.
So at the Paralympics in Rio in 2016, where you won a gold medal, you had a serious injury that you received an operation for a year later. How did you manage that?
In Rio the pain increased and increased with training, so we had to reduce the training sessions. But I am always in good spirits. I told myself that I have to fight and I will make it, but only if I can decide on my own training program. When I could, I trained; when I couldn’t, I rested. I listened to my body and did what was best for it. Normally there is a team making these decisions, but in Rio I took command of my training program completely. And it was good in the end but not good enough for me.
It was still the best in the world.
Yes. But not the best for me. I wanted to lift more. I lifted 220 kg in Rio, which is not the most I have lifted in competition.
How have things changed over the years for Paralympic athletes?
The media has become more interested in handicapped sports. Before they were not focusing on handicapped sports, but this has changed; after the Paralympics in London, there has been much more attention and interest. It’s been increasing with time.
As an Emirati para athlete, how do you feel about the UAE’s support of sports for the disabled?
This club gives us everything. It is my second home. Nutrition, food catering, sports psychologists, physiotherapy, coaches, assistant coaches. There are clubs for the disabled in Al Ain and new ones opening in places like Khorfakkan. Sharjah’s Sports Club for the Disabled is the oldest in the country; it was the first one to open. Dubai also holds the annual Fazza IPC Athletics Championships, in which disabled athletes compete. From what I have seen, I believe the UAE is number one in its support of disabled athletes.
You have had so much professional success, 14 medals in total from all over the world. What was your happiest moment?
My happiest moment … right now! [Laughter.] Every moment is a good moment when I am training. This is my life, my happiness. If I’m healthy and training, I’m happy. It has been six weeks since my surgery, so I will start training again in a few months when I am ready.
How big is the para powerlifting world? Do you know your competition?
There are three athletes that are always fighting with me for the gold. [Laughter.] One is from Egypt, one is from Iran, and one is from China. The medal goes around in a circle between us. We speak sometimes on Facebook, but are we friends? Not so much. [Laughter.] Because there are secrets to everyone’s training. You cannot give those secrets away.
What are your goals for the future?
This is my fight. I love this game! So I will never stop. My next goal is the championships in Mexico this year and then the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. There is time.