Haider Ali gets emotional remembering the biggest moment of his career - clinching the silver medal in the F37/38 Long Jump at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.
This was, perhaps, the biggest moment in Pakistan's Paralympic history, their first ever medal at the Games. It not only made Ali a star but changed the para-sport scenario in Pakistan. He became the face of Pakistan para-sport and a household name in his home city - Gujranwala, located north of the nearby provincial capital of Lahore.
"It was an unbelievable moment for me, a special one of course. Right from making Pakistan proud, witnessing the national flag being raised to clapping and appreciation from all across the world, everything was very emotional.
"People here back home knew about para-sport only after my Paralympic silver medal at Beijing 2008. The medal gave me recognition, a face, a motivation to believe in myself and my dreams. Many youngsters here also started following in my footsteps and now Pakistan has thousands of National para-athletes aspiring to become a Paralympic medalist like me," Ali said reminiscing on the Beijing 2008 glory where he set a new World Record of 6.44m jointly with Tunisian Farhat Chida and only missed out on gold when the number of successful jumps were tallied up at the end of competition.
Eight years later, Ali in fact came close to repeating that feat in Rio but had to settle for bronze. He is now the first and only Pakistan para-athlete to win more than one Paralympic Games medal. The medal also helped Ali mature in terms of confidence, experience and becoming a role model to help change the perception of people about para-sport in Pakistan.
Looking ahead, Ali now wants to relive those glorious days with a medal-winning show at Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games next year.
Though the Covid-19 pandemic has put his training regime in disarray, Ali is confident of repeating his Beijing show in Tokyo. In fact, he is focused on going one step further to clinch the elusive gold at the Tokyo 2020 Games, where this time he is hoping to compete in discus as well as long jump.
"I am aiming for the gold this time. And all my focus is on my men's F37 discus event, where I am confident on finishing on top. In the recent events like the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games and Dubai 2019 World Championships, I have maintained the top place-winning the gold and silver medals. Besides, I believe my experience of the past few Games will play a big role," said Ali who secured the Tokyo 2020 ticket in his discus and long jump events at the Dubai 2019 championships.
"There will be pressure and medal expectations, of course, but I love to perform in that pressure now."
He is also expecting a good show in his men's long jump F37 event but said, "Competition in my long jump event is expected to be very tough this time with many strong athletes in contention."
The 35-year-old para-athlete admitted that the Tokyo 2020 postponement has given the athletes "more training time" for the Games, stressing that "this extra time would be beneficial for the younger athletes" who can attain their peak quickly.
"At the Dubai 2019 Championships, there were 10 players among us who were of same level. So, it's definitely going to be a tough competition at Tokyo 2020. And with the postponement, everyone has got enough time to prepare better. All my competitors are 7 to 8 years younger to me and thus they have better fitness and chance to reach their peak.
"For athletes like me, who don't have the age-advantage, it will be important that we should work harder to stay fit, flexible and injury-free.
"Another aspect that I am focusing on is the 'glide' to get a better distance in my throw. In the past, I was making standing throw and losing of 5-10m distance. Now I have been able to get 55m. But due to the lockdown, I am not able to visit the training venue. I am sticking to light workout and strengthening exercises at home," said Ali, who believes that maintaining above 55m in the upcoming time can make him one of the top contenders for gold medal in men's discus throw F37 event.
Ali, who has hemiparesis on the right side since birth, said his love for athletics developed as a teenager and it was only in 2004 that he could actually pursue his passion.
"I was very much fond of athletics since a very young age. It was only during my college days that I was introduced to the sport with proper guidance. And eventually I started bunking my classes to attend training sessions for long jump and discus throw sessions," said Ali who was also the athletics champion in his college-the Government College at Gujranwala.
And two years later, Ali made a 'dream' international debut clinching four medals, including a gold in men's long jump F37 event, at the 2006 FESPIC Games in Kuala Lumpur -a multi-sport event that has become the Asian Para Games.
"In January 2006, the trials for the Pakistan National Para Athletics team were held in Islamabad and I eventually made it to the team. There was no looking back after that."
Over the years, Ali has been motivated by the success of Jamaican sprint legend Usain Bolt. With so little resources, he said, "Bolt has shown the world that nothing is impossible".
"Despite coming from an unprivileged background, he achieved what nobody else in sprint and track could accomplish. He makes us believe in our dreams and that hard work and perseverance always pay off."
Aside from athletics, cricket is the other passion that Ali has followed before he encountered with athletics, and admires former Pakistan captain and current Prime Minister Imran Khan in that case.
He is now awaiting his fourth Paralympic Games with high hopes of not only the gold medal but sponsors whose support, he believes, can improve the para-sport scenario in Pakistan.
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