Last week I was fortunate enough to catch up with twenty-one year old paralympian Ahmed Kelly and gain an insight into his extraordinary life.
Ahmed was born in Baghdad, Iraq with a double arm and leg deficiency. He grew up in Baghdad’s Mother Teresa orphanage with his younger brother Emmanuel. At nine years of age, Ahmed moved to Australia where he was fitted with prosthetic legs. He played Australian Rules football for his school team before turning his attention to swimming in 2008. Most recently, he represented Australia at the 2012 London Paralympic games.
Ahmed described life in the orphanage as being quiet. He would go to bed at about 5 o’clock each night and wake up at around 8 o’clock each morning. Breakfast consisted of a glass of milk.
“If you were lucky, you would get bread, but that’s all. We didn’t have the choice of cereal or anything like that. But we couldn’t compare because we didn’t know what the other side of the world was like, so it was pretty good compared to what we were used to,” he said.
After breakfast, he would have a shower and get changed. He and Emmanuel were the only two mobile kids at the orphanage. They would always be running around, while the others would find a way to entertain themselves.
“We were the only two mobile kids in the orphanage so we would just run around as crazy as ever,” Ahmed said.
In 2009 Moira also became a co guardian of previously cranially conjoined twins, Trishna and Krishna who were separated during a 32 hour operation at the Royal Children’s hospital in Melbourne.
“I think the nuns had heard about Mum’s work, and so they contacted her to see if she could come over and see what could be done for both Emmanuel and I,” Ahmed said.
He first met Moira in 1998 when she came to Baghdad and visited them in the orphanage.
“I was seven years old when I first met Mum. It was a real treat because we never ever got visitors. We were told that there was a lady coming, and to be on our best behaviours. I just didn’t know what to expect.”
He described her as being very enthusiastic and very chirpy.
“She was definitely not the usual person that we were expecting. Everyone around Baghdad is dark skinned, but she was pretty light and she had blonde hair as well. The nuns were also covered up. They always wore their normal uniform. But then Mum came and had all of this different coloured clothing, so I thought it was pretty cool,” he said.
He remembers staying up late trying to entertain her and showing her around the orphanage.
“It was pretty good fun. I think she arrived later than what the nuns had thought she would, so that was a bit of a bonus. I don’t think I went to bed until 9 o’clock that night which was the latest ever,” he said smiling.
Two years later Ahmed and Emmanuel arrived in Australia. Even though he spoke very little English, he described feeling a sense of freedom as soon as he arrived in Melbourne.
“Walking out of those international airport doors into the public was just a great sense of freedom. It was a brand new adventure. I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was just riding each wave. I was just trying to meet everyone, get to know everything and just trying to understand the culture as well.”
He received medical treatment in Australia, which involved having parts of his lower legs removed before being fitted with prosthetics.
“It wasn’t until I got prosthetic legs that I really built this passion towards sport, because I was able to move a lot easier,” Ahmed said.
After attending his first AFL game in 2003 between Essendon and Brisbane, his passion for Australian Rules Football grew. He played football for his local team, The Kilmore Football Club, and also for his school’s Year 7/8 team.
After a few years of football, he had to give it up because it became too physically demanding on his prosthetic leg. In order to stop himself from becoming inactive, he decided to try out different sports.
“I always wanted to be active, no matter what, and because I wasn’t able to continue with the footy, it meant that I was going to be inactive. I knew that I wouldn’t like that at all.”
The Australian Paralympic Committee hosted a talent identification program where Ahmed was able to try out different sports; swimming being one that he really enjoyed and was reasonably good at.
“I wasn’t fabulous at it, but it was something that I could work towards. I guess it’s just like anything, you pick up a hobby and you just work towards it and you become really good at it.
“I had to start from scratch with swimming. I mean I did have some swimming lessons under my belt from when I was younger, but I didn’t really do that much swimming from then on. I knew how to stay afloat and all of that sort of stuff, but it was the technical aspects that I really had to really master.”
Ahmed competed in the 2010 Australian National Swimming Championships, where he finished first in the 100m breaststroke event in world record time. He finished first again the following year, at the National Swimming Championships, breaking another world record.
In 2012, he represented Australia at the London Paralympics, swimming in the 50m breaststroke. He came in fourth place.
He described training leading up to the Paralympics as being intense. He had eleven to twelve training sessions a week, which involved nine pool sessions and three gym sessions.
“Once you have all of the techniques right, you are now talking about being the fittest athlete there is for that stroke. It’s pretty intense and it does require a lot of time.”
Ahmed’s first race at the London Paralympics was the 150m Individual Medley heat. He described this event as a good chance to get the butterflies out.
“At a major event such as the Paralympics, you always try to have an event so you can rehearse, if it’s available, so that’s what the 150m medley was. This includes making sure you know where marshalling is, making sure you get there on time, making sure you’re wearing the right bathers and making sure you have goggles that are working.
“You also need to know what the officials are after when you’re at the marshalling, so some officials are different and they will be looking for different things.
“The last thing you want to do is the wrong thing and be disqualified after working for 4 years.”
He also had to adjust to the large crowd at the London Aquatic Centre.
“I’ve never been out in front of 17,500 people in my life performing. It was just really unreal and electrifying.
“Even though the medley was heats, it was a good way to adjust to that. There was still that full capacity, but it was all about swimming your best and trying to refocus. Even though there are all sorts of things happening around you, mentally you had to be focused about what you had to do and just focus on yourself.”
He described the nerve-racking feeling of waiting for his race.
“You usually know about 5 minutes before you had to walk out to race. You go into this room, and you’re just thinking oh my god, here it is.
“It’s quite a nerve-racking experience and you definitely have butterflies, but I mean you’ve worked all your life for something like that so you’ve also got to enjoy it.
“I think butterflies are just an indication of respect, you do respect where you are at and also your opponents and also the occasion. It was just unreal.”
Ahmed’s main race, the 50m breaststroke was the day after the medley heat.
“I had already gone through the process so at that time all that I had to do was concentrate on what the coach said.”
He is now focusing on the Paralympics in Rio and states that his toughest challenges to come will be balancing training with a journalism degree at university.
“I’m in a uni lifestlyle at the moment so I’m just trying to do uni as well as swimming. I’m trying to stay motivated coming up towards the Paralympics in Rio.
“You have to be super organised. If you are the slightest bit disorganized, you fall behind and it is the worst feeling ever. There are people around you to help you get there.
“My coach Brad (Brad Harris) does a fantastic job, in keeping me motivated. I have been through it already, and I need to pick myself up to do it again.”
When asked who his role models were, Ahmed said that he had many.
He credits Grant Patterson, who was his roommate, as being inspiring with his work ethic and level of energy around the pool.
“I just love the way he attacks his challenges and gets around on his scooter. His personality is unreal as well and he is just fantastic to be around.
He mentioned Maddi Elliott, a young athlete who has a fantastic energy and was able to conquer her fears and enjoy herself.
He also credits his Mum, Moira.
“She’s raised me to be the person I am and to have a great outlook on life. She really encouraged me to look at life positively.”