Iraqi-American powerlifter finishes journey at Paralympics
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) It's been quite a couple of weeks for Ahmed Shafik, the lone U.S. powerlifter at the Rio Paralympics.
His wife delivered the couple's second son early, shortly before the games began last Wednesday, and Shafik, an Iraqi immigrant, competed in his second - and he says final - Paralympics.
Despite a seventh-place finish in the 80-kilogram (176-pound) weight class on Monday, lifting 172 kilograms (379 pounds), Rio was a satisfying end to a long journey for Shafik.
''It was overwhelming for me because everybody was watching me and expecting good results and it's a big weight on my back to be the only lifter from the United States,'' Shafik said.
Born in Baghdad, Shafik contracted polio as a baby, which weakened his legs. Despite the disability, he can walk normally and do many other activities.
Still, he qualified for the Paralympics in powerlifting, the games' single weightlifting discipline, in which competitors lie on a bench and raise hundreds of pounds just with their upper bodies.
Shafik was inspired to first start weightlifting when growing up and watching his father, Abdul, compete and set records for the Iraqi national team.
Shafik followed in his father's footsteps and qualified for the national team that competed in the 1998 IPC World Championships. But he fled the country after the Iraqi Olympic authorities, led by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, imprisoned and abused Shafik and his teammates for unsatisfactory performances.
He then went to Jordan before making his way to the United States in 2001, where he was given refugee status. He didn't start powerlifting again until 2007.
''I wanted to have fun, that's always my main motivation, I always try and have fun while I'm competing and representing the United States,'' Shafik said. ''And I think this games were much better than London because I got good results this time and it meant a lot for me.''
A U.S. Army veteran and mechanical engineer, Shafik is now settled in Tucson, Ariz. His wife was due to deliver their second son during the Paralympics. But the baby arrived early, and Shafik was able to be at the birth.
''I've been seeing him every day through video chat and everything's good,'' he said.
After his final lift, the 43-year-old Shafik tugged on his singlet and pointed to the American flag while the mostly Brazilian crowd cheered, as they do for most competitors.
Moments later, Shafik said these games were his last competition, and he would be retiring from powerlifting. But he intends to stay close to the sport and work alongside coaches to help teach the next generation of lifters.
''Hopefully by 2020 we get more lifters on the team because one lifter in this Paralympics from the greatest country in the world, in my opinion, isn't enough,'' he said.
But before all that, Shafik is excited to get back home to his newly expanded family and relish all the support he has received over the past couple of days.
''It's just overwhelming, hearing from everybody at home and on social media, Facebook, everything else,'' Shafik said. ''(The support) has been overwhelming. They're cheering for me, wishing me good luck and it seriously means a lot to me.''
Anna Pitingolo is a journalism student at Penn State University. Penn State and Georgia are partnering with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2016 Paralympics.