When powerlifter Ali Jawad came to Leeds four years ago he was just learning his sport, now he is eyeing Paralympic gold. Lee Sobot reports.
BORN in Lebanon before relocating to north London, powerlifting world champion Ali Jawad is used to relocation.
That’s just as well as he settles into a new life close to the sport’s new training base in Loughborough.
But the 26-year-old is moving with a heavy heart after four life-changing years in his new “second home” Leeds.
Paralympian Jawad was a 22-year-old with raw potential when uprooting from his Tottenham home to Leeds to train at powerlifting’s national centre in Headingley.
Four years later, Jawad is world number one, world champion and would be an Paralympic runner-up but for the controversy surrounding his ‘silver medal lift’ at London 2012. Jawad’s lift was adjudged to have been illegal – depriving him of a silver medal – but the Lebanon-born ace went some way to consoling himself by becoming -59kg world champion in Dubai last April.
Any London 2012 hangover will be well and truly cured if he bags gold at the Rio Paralympics next year. And while Jawad will now prepare for that assault in Loughborough – any 2016 South American success will be dedicated to Leeds.
Jawad admits he had no friends and no general idea about what to expect upon initially moving north which began with a house-share alongside five other powerlifters in Headingley in 2011. Jawad then opted to stay in Leeds after his London 2012 experience and eventually moved into his own one bedroom house in Bramley. Three years after being a Leeds loner, Jawad was swarmed by friends and attention at last weekend’s 2015 Leeds Sports Awards where he was named disability sportsman of the year following a fine 2014 that also included a Commonwealth Games bronze.
Yet Jawad could not hang around at last weekend’s New Dock Hall event with the usual four-mile trip back to Bramley replaced with an 86-mile trek to his new base in Loughborough which Jawad admits will never compare to his love for Leeds.
Jawad told the YEP: “It’s a bit sad because I didn’t think I was going to move away from Leeds when I moved up four years ago. But British Weightlifting has moved to Loughborough so that’s probably the best place for me right now. “I came up in 2011 when the 2011 British Weightlifting were based up in Leeds. I thought that in the year before the Paralympics it was important that I came up and got the support.
“I was training here for about a year before the Games and I expected to move back to London after the event but after what happened in London obviously with the controversy I wanted to really focus on an uninterrupted four years to another Paralympic Games.
“That’s why I moved back up to Leeds and I didn’t think I was going to move away. It’s quite sad.
“When I first moved up here I thought ‘what am I doing here? It’s so far away’. But now it is literally like my second home. I felt really relaxed here, I’ve got so many friends and incredible memories. If it wasn’t for Leeds I wouldn’t have taken the next step in my career.”
That next step came last April when Jawad was crowned world champion – some feat for a man who was born without any legs and was then diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2009. But not much gets in the Paralympian’s way and he is now targeting a gold medal in Rio and determined to break even more records by bench-pressing 200kg. Jawad explained: “Rio is obviously the main one but that’s next year and I still have to qualify so this year will be all about qualification. For me it will be historic if I bench press 200 kilos this year because there’s only one man in history that’s ever done it, and for me to do it would be incredible. I have done it four times in the gym but it’s all about doing in competition when it matters. I fly to Mexico next month which is a qualifier for the Paralympics and if I go over my world record that should cement my place in the top eight in the world so I can probably get to the Games. We’ve got the Europeans in November and that’s the one that I want to win because it’s another major title and that just leaves one more – Rio.
“My lift at London 2012 that could have got me the silver medal was disqualified twice and looking at he video footage it shouldn’t have been disqualified. At first I was annoyed but that world title kind of got me half way there to being more chilled out about it.
“And now Rio is all about a gold medal, it’s not about a silver or bronze. In my eyes I won silver that day so gold would be one up. I was thinking maybe if I did win it next year that I’d probably think about retirement. My body and my Crohn’s – I don’t know if it can handle it, but we’ll see. Plus if I did it I would be the first Crohn’s sufferer to ever win it.”
It would take a brave man to bet against Jawad gaining the ultimate compensation of gold in Rio with the powerlifter now one of Team GB’s best-loved Paralympians.
Jawad’s parents plus his three sisters and one brother still live in London and at least moving to Loughborough acts as something of a half-way house. And the powerlifter also plans to make regular trips back to Leeds – both to see the many friends he has made in the city – and to get to a decent cinema.
Jawad revealed: “The one thing good about Loughborough is there are no distractions. The gym is world class and the support you get is incredible.
“Unfortunately there is nothing else in Loughborough – apart from the power base. I like it in Leeds because I like being entertained and I don’t like being bored. In Leeds you have got a lot of attractions where I can do stuff – but obviously that is a distraction.
“I’m talking about something as simple as going to the cinema.
“In Loughborough there is actually a cinema but it’s not really that great and you have to go to Leicester to go to a good cinema.
“The cinema here was just down the road which was great. It’s just little things that like which I’ll miss.”
Leeds will also miss Jawad – but any success in Rio 2016 will be very much a success for the city in which he has spent the last four years.
Asked if he would rather have a golden post box painted in Loughborough or Leeds, Jawad laughed: “I don’t know if they are still doing that but I’d probably prefer it in Leeds. In Loughborough I don’t even know where a post box is.”