Ever since Ahmed Shafik was a boy in Baghdad, he’s had what he calls a “deep love” of lifting weights.
He recalls watching his father, Abdul, a record-setting member of the Iraqi national weightlifting team, train and compete. His father set national and Asian records, and Ahmed wanted to do the same.
“He was my inspiration,” says Shafik, 43, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Ahmed, however, was born with polio. Becoming an Olympic-caliber weightlifter for his country wasn’t going to happen.
Yet his strength and passion for lifting took him on his own competitive path across the globe that included unexpected twists and turns. He became a Paralympic powerlifter, first for Iraq and then the United States. Along the way he was jailed and beaten in Iraq, escaped to Jordan and received refugee status in the U.S. He served in the U.S. Army, became a citizen, was deployed to Iraq for three years and eventually took up lifting again for his new nation, earning medals in International Paralympic Committee competitions.
Today he’s settled into a quiet life in Arizona, married with one son and another on the way. He works as a mechanical engineer in the heating and cooling business after graduating from the University of Arizona.
Yet still, after all these years, he has the love of lifting, and he has one more stop to make on his competitive journey.
In September, Shafik will compete as the only powerlifter for Team USA at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It will be the second Paralympic Games for Shafik, who says it will then be time to retire.
Shafik won a silver medal at the IPC Powerlifting Open Americas Championship in 2015 and a bronze at the 2011 Parapan American Games in 2011. But at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, a technical issue voided his lifts and he came home empty-handed.
Four years later, he’d like to leave Rio with a medal to cap his career.
Says Shafik, laughing: “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
In everyday life, Shafik’s polio is unseen. The 5-foot-5, 176-pounder looks fit and strong, with big arms, shoulders and chest. He can walk normally and do just about anything anyone else can. But his legs are weaker from the effects of the disease.
So in Iraq, Shafik began powerlifting, a parallel version of weightlifting used in the Paralympic Games.
Competitors lay flat on a long bench, with their legs and feet up, not touching the ground (as when able-bodied weightlifters perform a bench press, getting extra push from their feet on the floor). This allows for a level playing field for athletes with damaged, weakened or missing lower limbs.
Shafik was good enough to make the Iraqi national team that competed in the 1998 IPC World Championship in Dubai in 1998.
But Shafik finished fifth in his division, and the Iraqi Olympic authorities, headed by Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, were unhappy with the team’s overall performance. Shafik says he and his teammates were seriously “abused” and imprisoned. Shafik’s story is in keeping with other reports by the country’s Olympic athletes – such as the national soccer team – that Uday Hussein beat and tortured athletes whom he believed had underperformed.
“They actually beat the whole team,” says Shafik. “When we were released from prison, I said, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to lift anymore,’ so I left the country.”
Shafik escaped to Jordan and then came to the United States in 2000, where he received refugee status.
He didn’t take up powerlifting again until 2007, about the time he deployed to Iraq as a translator with the Army. He says he won the first event he entered, and he’s continued to train and compete ever since, including during his three-year tour of Iraq.
He finished 10th in the IPC World Championships in 2010 (the year he left the service), made the Paralympic team for London two years later and also went to the World Championships in 2014.
This year he was selected as the only American powerlifter for the Games in Brazil (Sept. 7-18) after winning a bronze medal in January at an IPC Powerlifting World Cup event in Rio de Janeiro. There, he lifted 178 kilograms (392.4 pounds). It’s the 18th-best mark in the world this year, according to the latest IPC rankings in the 80-kilogram (176-pound) division.
Shafik says his training has been good in recent months and he feels strong and confident going into the Paralympics. Going to his first Games in 2012 was something that’s stayed with him.
“It was overwhelming, an amazing feeling,” he says. “I cannot describe it for you. Walking in, everybody clapping, screaming, flags everywhere.”
To be able to compete for the United States is something he’s exceptionally proud of.
“It’s really an honor, a big honor for me to represent my team, my coaches, my country and everybody,” he says. “It’s amazing.”
September will be eventful for another reason, too. His wife, Nour, is scheduled to deliver their second son about the same time he’ll be competing in Rio.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.