By Stuart Lieberman | Dec. 04, 2018, 2:15 p.m. (ET)

Mohamed Lahna competes at the Paratriathlon Male Tri-2 race on October 22, 2012 in Auckland, New Zealand.Mohamed Lahna competes at the Paratriathlon Male Tri-2 race on October 22, 2012 in Auckland, New Zealand.

 

A lot can change in one Paralympic cycle.

At the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, Mohamed Lahna won a bronze medal for Morocco in the PTS2 classification when paratriathlon made its Paralympic debut.

With two years to go until Tokyo 2020, the 36-year-old now finds himself competing for Team USA in cycling.

A different country. A different sport.

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After eight years of living in the U.S. and seeing his two kids born here as Americans, he coveted the opportunity to represent his new country, as well as the resources and camaraderie that competing as part of a larger team can bring. He competed under the International Triathlon Union flag in 2017 before his change of country request was processed in early 2018.

“I’m part of this country now, so I want to represent this country,” Lahna said. “As the only triathlete from Morocco at events, I used to have to do everything myself and it was a little bit lonely. I just wanted to be part of a team, and since I was already here in the U.S. training with a lot of the American athletes, it was a natural transition.”

Lahna became a member of the USA Paratriathlon Resident Athlete Program in the spring, moving with his wife and two kids to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

But then, a wrench was thrown into his perfect Paralympic plan.

“Things were going very well, and then four months ago the classifications for paratriathlon at the Tokyo 2020 Games were announced, and my category wasn’t a part of that list. Since I had already moved to Colorado Springs and I love cycling — it’s my strength compared to swimming and running — I thought, ‘Why not train for cycling?’”

Now, three months into training full time at the velodrome, Lahna will compete at the U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling National Championships on Dec. 8 and 9 in Colorado Springs.

“I’m so competitive and I love challenges,” he said. “I believe that when one door closes, another opens. I believe in that; I love sports, and I want to go and represent the U.S. internationally. The combination of all of this just made me do this.”

For those familiar with Lahna’s resume, it’s no surprise to see him pounce on a new endeavor with as much ferventness as he has this fall.

Born in Morocco without a right femur, Lahna was the eldest of five children to parents of modest means who thought he would never walk. He grew up participating in sports, but it wasn’t until he was fit with his first real prosthesis at age 20 that the world of sports truly opened up to him. He started as a strong swimmer, having conquered the most impressive feat of swimming across the Strait of Gibraltar. He rode a bike for the first time at 25 and the following year crossed the Atlas Mountains on it. He ran for the first time at 27 and then completed his first marathon just a few months later.

He has since competed in the Ironman World Championships, become the first above-the-knee amputee in the world to finish the 155-mile Marathon des Sables and recorded 13 podium finishes for Morocco on the international triathlon stage.

Luckily, Lahna isn’t starting cycling from scratch, as he already has the fitness and now just needs to grasp the intricacies of the sport. This includes turning on a 333.3-meter banked cement track and becoming a comfortable sprinter in the pursuit, rather than pacing himself like he did on the roads in triathlon.

“I’m putting in the time and the effort, so hopefully it’s all going to come to me in time for nationals,” he said. “Even though cycling is part of triathlon, doing cycling only has been a whole different world so far. I’m starting with track cycling, which is a whole beast by itself. I’m so lucky to be here with [U.S. Paralympics Cycling Head Coach] Sarah Hammer, who has been very patient with me and teaching me a lot.”

Hammer, a four-time Olympic medalist in cycling, took over the coaching reigns of the U.S. Paralympic cycling team earlier this year and has already made Lahna feel at home. More than 25 athletes will take part in the national championships, and Lahna hopes to come away with some hardware he can show his extended family, as he’ll be flying to Morocco the very next day for a vacation.

“I’m trying to be realistic, but at the same time set the bar high,” he said. “I’ll wait to see the results from nationals and see if my times could take me to international races.

“It’s going to be a very competitive field trying to qualify for Tokyo 2020. I don’t know if I can make it or not, but I’m going to put in the work until the very last day.”

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.