x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Ahmed Al Hameli back for Ukraine powerboat round, as brain tumour survivor

The Team Abu Dhabi driver is racing again in Ukraine less than a year after he was diagnosed with life-threatening illness.

Ahmed Al Hameli looks back at some past pictures of him at the Abu Dhabi International Marine Club to relive his glory days. Christopher Pike / The National
Ahmed Al Hameli looks back at some past pictures of him at the Abu Dhabi International Marine Club to relive his glory days. Christopher Pike / The National

Ahmed Al Hameli would be forgiven for approaching his trip to Ukraine this weekend with an acute degree of trepidation.

No apologies necessary. Oddly, the Team Abu Dhabi driver cannot wait to get back there. He loves Kiev, the Ukrainian capital that straddles the banks of the Dnieper River. And, more to the point, he loves racing his powerboat.

But the last time he went there, to compete in the third race of the UIM F1H20 World Championship, 12 months ago, it was a life-changing return journey.

Having finished runner-up in that grand prix in Kiev, he headed home to Abu Dhabi and was immediately beset by dizziness. He could not eat; even drinking water brought on nausea.

And he was not getting better. "It was a good race for me, a good memory," he says.

"After the race I came back home and I had a bad feeling in me, that something was not right. I went to the hospital and after the check-up they told me I had a brain tumour. I had to fly to the US the same week."

He is as matter of fact as that about it. Because of the nature of his job Al Hameli is used to getting from A to B in double-quick time.

Within four days of being diagnosed, he was going under the knife at the John Hopkins Hospital, in the United States, which is widely regarded as one of the world's leading brain surgery institutions.

"I flew there, got an appointment and they did the operation that same week," the Abu Dhabi-born racer says.

"I wasn't scared because there was nothing I could do. What could I do? I have only one chance to do the brain operation and that was it.

"I spoke to the doctor; he has done many operations of this kind and he said it is OK.

"I went to the operation room and told them to do whatever they needed to do, because I can't stay like this."

When fate intervened, Al Hameli had a nine-point lead in the world championship table and was seemingly en route to his first title, having first competed in the class in 2006.

It was a marker of how well-placed he was when misfortune struck that Al Hameli still finished fifth in the final standings even though he missed the final three events of the six-race season.

His 50-point haul, gathered via a win in Qatar followed by second-place finishes in Russia and Ukraine, was just 29 points behind the eventual champion, Alex Carella of Italy.

All of which is, of course, of secondary concern to his health. Not that you would know it from speaking to him. Forget general well-being: all that concerned him was getting back to racing.

"I was in a hurry to get into the boat," he says, remember his first day back in the cockpit. That day, I was the first person into the boat.

"I had been in the US watching my friends racing and I felt really bad. I felt that there was nothing wrong with me. I hadn't suffered in an accident.

"When I flew from the US I though that was it, that I wasn't going to race again. The doctor told me so many things.

"He said I can't race, that I have to take care. Then after I finished my medication he said I could return to racing, but to take care."

After eight months of medication, an attestation from the surgeons, his doctor in Abu Dhabi, and a rigorous fitness examination, he was reissued his super licence in May.

It was just in time for Al Hameli, who cut his teeth racing jet skis, before graduating to wooden-powerboating then F1 powerboating, to return for the first leg of the new season at a grand prix in Brazil.

"I felt strange when I went back, because I didn't think the guys would be like this," he says.

"They were very happy for me to be back. They welcomed me back like a brother."

His spirit in adversity has been an inspiration for friends and rivals alike.

"It's been such a uplifting experience to watch Ahmed fight through this struggle," Scott Gillman, the four-time world champion who is the manager of Team Abu Dhabi, said back in May.

"Ahmed has given all of us a lesson in courage and fortitude by showing us what can be accomplished if the mind and body are willing.

"By the grace of God, he is now ready and has returned to our team set to get back to his No 1 love in life: racing."

Sort of his No 1 love, anyway. It is easy to see he adores it. He is startlingly impassive when talking about his medical travails, laid back to the point of indifference about what he has been through.

As he recalls, the moment he was told emergency surgery was required to save his life, he seems entirely distracted by the reading matter on the coffee table in front of him.

He blithely recounts the story of travelling to America under heavy sedation, struggling to convey any obvious sense of the trip's gravity while his fingers sift energetically through powerboating magazines.

And he radiates animation when he leads the way out of his team's base at Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club and eyes the photo gallery on the wall in the foyer. "That is me," he says, variously waving his way along the pictures. "That is my cousin - he taught me everything I know. That is my boat.

"That is where I started," he says, pointing at a wooden-hulled speedboat which is tipping up at an alarming angle.

But is it his absolute No 1 love? Unlikely. In fact, racing probably just loses out in that competition to his three sons - but having said that, he can combine both.

"Yes, of course they have been out on the boat with me," he says. "Maybe one will be a Formula One car racer, one Formula One boat and the other Class One."

pradley@thenational.ae

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