Glass speaks to Ali Jawad – Paralympic powerlifter for Team GB – about his career so far and his hopes for Tokyo 2021

Worth his weight in gold – Glass talks to Ali Jawad, Paralympic powerlifter for Team GB about his incredible career so far and his medal-winning hopes for Tokyo 2021



Ambition can be scary. It can drive people to trample over co-workers for a minor promotion; it can inspire insecurity and rejection from potential partners and, when allowed to fester, it’s the insatiable root of de spotism. Needless to say, the ambition that fuels Paralympic powerlifter Ali Jawad doesn’t resemble any of the above. He’s irrepressibly kind and warm. Yet his drive and dedication are terrifying.

“They told me I had two options – one is the stoma bag and the other is a stem cell trial, which is only a trial and may not work. However, it takes over a year and involves some very aggressive chemotherapy. With both options, I would have to retire.” Early in his powerlifting career Ali Jawad was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a debilitating, lifelong condition that causes the digestive system to become inflamed, leaving sufferers malnourished, fatigued and in frequent pain. Aside from being something he has to fight against on a daily basis, it is the main obstacle standing between him and another Paralympic medal.

“So, I was there thinking, wow, you know? But I knew straight away what I was going to do. I went back to my team and said look, these are my two options. They’re rubbish, but there’s another option which hasn’t [been] offered to me, which is a medication that a lot of Crohn’s sufferers use on a short-term basis. [It’s] very toxic with a lot of dangerous side effects. Long-term use at the dosages I need would be potentially fatal. However, as a short-term fix …

“So I asked my team why I couldn’t be on it for two years until the 2020 games. They said it’s just too risky, [plus] they don’t have the scientific research to advise me on the long-term effects. I told them that I knew the risks. My consultant freaked out, but, ultimately, they managed to have faith. It has been tough – the drug has thrown everything at me that it could possibly throw, and I’ve just had to adapt. I accepted from the start that I may not make it, but I needed to fight to see if I could push the disease to limits it’s never been pushed to before.”



To an average person all of this would be very scary. Clearly, Ali Jawad isn’t “average”. “I think I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had to go through such adversities. It teaches you to really dig deep and find out things about yourself that you didn’t know were there. After I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, it took a superhuman effort to try and get to 2012.”


The London 2012 Paralympic Games will always be looked back on as a turning point. The exposure was equivalent to the Olympics, generating major public interest.  For the first time, the Paralympics felt like a major event in its own right rather than an afterthought. Key to this change in perception was Channel 4’s Meet The Superhumans ad campaign. You know the one. It’s a stirring three-minute segment that won awards, stuck in the mind and blew away pretty much everyone. Nevertheless, I’d always had a slight issue with it – to be superhuman, while impressive, isn’t human. I was torn between succumbing to the ad’s infectious joy, and a nagging feeling that its participants were being depicted as more different than ever before.

Speaking to Jawad, star of 2016’s follow up, We Are The Superhumans, made me realise that I’d got it completely wrong. While the ad highlights incredible final feats – a leap, a lift, the snap of the finish-line ribbon – what makes Ali Jawad superhuman isn’t his physical condition or capabilities – it’s his mental one. That’s not to downplay his mind-boggling strength – Jawad is able to lift three times his own body weight without generating any force from the lower half of his body. This is something we can see, quantify and try to make sense of. But his mind is a mystery – home to an exceptional but invisible superhuman force, which, as one of the world’s regular humans, is completely alien to me.

To understand how Jawad became the man he is today, it’s important to look back at his formative years. While this sounds clichéd, rest assured the banality ends here. Jawad was born without any legs in Lebanon in 1989 during a period of prolonged civil war. His father was advised to end his child’s life rather than face the difficulty of raising him during a time of such tumult.

Thankfully, he disagreed. “We fled when I was a baby. I came to the UK when I was about six months old, settling in north London. My parents wanted me to be independent so they sent me to a mainstream school with no special facilities for students living with disabilities – no lifts, no ramps. I think they knew I had a good brain and they wanted to get the most out of it. They wanted me to learn on the job, which made me really confident – I learned how to navigate certain situations and, crazily enough, I was never bullied at school. I was always in the popular group. I had a lot of friends and I loved being a cheeky boy growing up in Tottenham.”



With a longstanding desire to become an athlete, it took a while for Jawad to find something that worked for him. “Ever since I was six, I’ve always wanted to compete at the Paralympics. That’s been the dream, ever since seeing [sprinter] Michael Johnson win the double gold at the 1996 Olympic Games. It was about finding the right sport because I knew didn’t have legs like him. I knew I had to find a sport I was good at. My first love was judo. It’s funny how that came about. In the playground, when I was about 11 somebody was calling me names, legless pig, something like that, and I thought ‘I’m not having that’. So I got off my chair and started beating him up. The teacher took me away and said I was getting detention.


“I couldn’t believe it. I never did that sort of thing and my parents would be furious. The teacher told me to go to the hall for detention, which I thought was weird as detention’s never usually there. Regardless, I go to the hall after school and mats are out – I realised it wasn’t detention, but a judo class. She was giving me a one-on-one judo class because she thought that I could be quite good based on what she’d seen in the playground. She absolutely battered me but she also told me I had potential. That’s when I thought that judo could be my Paralympic sport. So I did it for four years. I trained four to five times a week and got really good. But it turned out that I was never going to get to the Paralympics Games via judo because there isn’t a classification for me in judo at the Paralympics. It’s only for the blind and visually impaired. So my dream was completely broken.

“My parents then said that it was time to focus on my GCSEs. It was around this time, that a friend managed to convince me to go with him to the gym across the road – Wood Green Weightlifting Club. This gym was proper spit and sawdust. It was old – proper Rocky Balboa style. I loved it, because I grew up with the Rocky films. Still, it was quite intimidating at first. There were all these massive guys grunting, and there was a smell to it as well. My friend asked me how much I could bench. My first ever attempt was 100kg.”

As a gym-phobe who doesn’t even understand metric units, I wasn’t initially sure what to make of this, until Jawad modestly assured me that 100kg is in fact a lot. A hell of a lot.

“The whole room stopped and this big guy comes up to me and goes ‘wait here, I’m going to get somebody’. I thought I’d done something wrong. I put the weights back and told my friend to get out of there before we got into trouble. I sneaked past reception but before I could leave this old man stopped my path and told me to go into his office.  He said he’s never seen anything like it before and he’d been coaching for 40 years. He was the former Team GB powerlifting head coach back in the day. He told me, ‘I can get you to a Paralympic Games’.”

Three years later he did just that. As a teenager and newcomer to the sport, Jawad went to the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing with low expectations but quickly surprised himself and everyone else with his impressive qualifying performances. Incredibly, he lifted the second biggest weight in Great Britain’s Paralympic powerlifting history. He felt great until he didn’t feel great when a mystery illness struck, hindering his performance in the finals. He came eighth in Beijing and returned home to find out that he had Crohn’s disease.

Despite the prognosis he was, at 19, the World Junior Champion as well as the junior and senior British record holder in his discipline. With the added incentive of a hometown Games on the horizon, Jawad reversed his brief 2009 decision to retire, undertaking major surgery and finding a way to juggle the illness with his daily training regime. It took a superhuman effort to try and get to 2012 but he made it. But his dreams of winning a medal were shattered and he finished fourth.

Jawad was tasked with a weight of 189 kilos, a weight that would go on to be good enough for the silver medal behind Sherif Othman of Egypt, the discipline’s star who would go on to add another gold to the one he’d won in Beijing. Jawad makes the lift but, after some deliberation, general confusion, and outrage from the London crowd, it’s invalidated. Sheer disbelief.



He’s invited back for a second attempt but looks depleted from the first. Reliving the second lift, Jawad says he was cold, that his body was thrust into spasm, such was the immense stress of the two herculean attempts. Somehow, he does it, but somehow, the same verdict is delivered – invalid. At this point, unable to lift his body with his arms, Jawad crumples on to the floor. “When I was on the floor in London it was harrowing. Those images … they summed up my four years. I was completely disillusioned. But sometimes you have to live through moments like that for the good times to be good.”


Powerlifting is one of those rare sports that, at least from the outside, seems to take something away from its athletes that they don’t get back. Performing at that level requires you to expend a tremendous amount of explosive energy, and when Jawad collapsed it was almost as if his soul had momentarily left his body. What happened in 2012 would destroy most people. Instead, he recovered, won gold at the 2014 World Championships, and then the silver at the 2016 Paralympic Games, sharing the podium with the winner Sherif Othman.


“To be denied like that [in London] … how much bad luck can I get? But then I realised that I’d gone into the Games pretty naïve, thinking that I deserved some luck after what life had given me, especially in terms of the Crohn’s … I realised that I didn’t deserve any luck at all – what you do, is you keep everything in place to reduce the risk of those outcomes happening. Nothing is guaranteed – if you can accept that from the beginning, then you can have no fear in attacking things. I have a saying, ‘don’t be afraid to live in darkness if you’ve got a shot at the light’, and all I wanted was a shot at the light.


“For me now, I embrace the challenge – I love waking up every day and having something to fight for – to pretty much have to fight for my life on a daily basis until I get treatment. I think it’s a good challenge to have. It makes you think outside the box – you get to know yourself very, very well, and what you are willing to do to find a way. The path that I’ve taken, the delayed treatment to try and win the gold medal – that’s what I’ve always wanted. It’s what I’ve put my life into and all I wanted was just a shot, even though it might be my last one.”

A knock-on effect of the Crohn’s disease has been a drop down in weight class, meaning, come Tokyo 2021, there’s a new man to beat: Nigeria’s Roland Ezuruike. “He’s incredible – probably as good as Sherif [Othman]. But although he is incredible, he is definitely beatable. My job – and this is this hard part – is to get into a position where I take him right down to the wire and hope his technique isn’t as good as mine under pressure. I’m praying that if I can get there in decent shape, I could be a dark horse for a medal. After everything that has happened to me, I think a medal would be incredible. I think the only way I’m going to win it is if, one: I have incredibly good luck, and two: Roland doesn’t perform to his best. Things are going to have to go my way for the first time in a long time.”


In a sport replete with bulging muscles and superhuman feats of strength, it’s Ali Jawad’s superhuman mind that sets him apart, that makes him scary to the average Joe, and means you can never, ever bet against him. With Tokyo 2021 fast approaching, all he needs is a little help from another one of life’s intangibles – luck. Fingers crossed.

by Charlie Navin-Holder

The 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo begin August 24, 2021

Photographs CAMPAIGN, SPORTS DIRECT, produced by WE ARE DINK