When the Abu Dhabi Triathlon kicks off Saturday, Moroccan Mohamed Lahna, a 2016 Paralympics hopeful, will once again be the only participating paratriathlete from an Arab country, writes Ali Khaled.
Abu Dhabi Triathlon: For Mohamed Lahna, there's no rest until Rio
He will not be too difficult to spot. When the Abu Dhabi Triathlon starts Saturday, Morocco's Mohamed Lahna will be once again the only paratriathlete from an Arab country competing in the three-discipline event.
"I started racing triathlons in 2008, I was the only paratriathlete in Morocco, and even now I'm the still the only Moroccan and Arab doing triathlons."
The early days, he says, were very difficult as resources and facilities for challenged athletes in his home country were practically nonexistent.
"At first I didn't find any resources. For our biking and running, we need special equipment," Lahna said. " We need special bike legs, and a special running leg, so it was difficult in the beginning but with time, I started to do more research and got advice from a lot people in Europe and the US."
The oldest of three sisters and one brother, Lahna was born in Casablanca in 1982 with PFFD (proximal femoral focal deficiency), which left him without a right femur. But even as a child he never let that affect him, always playing sports with the other neighbourhood youngsters.
Then, a chance meeting between his father and El Biar Abdeljalil, a swimming bronze medallist at the Seoul Paralympics, set him on the way, and he has not stopped running, swimming and cycling since.
His achievements are remarkable. In September 2011, he won the silver medal at the Triathlon World Championship in Beijing, a first for any Moroccan athlete, able bodied or challenged.
Despite his uniqueness, Lahna would much rather there were others challenging him.
"I'm the only one who has raced in the ITU World Championships, but that is not a good thing, I wish there were more people racing" he said. "I would like to see parathletes from other Arab countries, it's a great and very interesting sport to participate in."
And now, the triathlon is set become a Paralympics sport for the first time at the 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
"In 2014 the qualification for Rio will start and races will take place around the world, some races will be in Africa because I'm representing Morocco, and others in Europe where I'll be trying to get enough points to qualify," he said. "It is my goal to get to the 2016 Olympics, inshalla."
For now, Europe seems to be the ideal place for Lahna to follow his dreams.
"It's crazy there, all you have to do is ask and they have so many options for you," he said.
"Do you want to bike with one leg, or with a prosthetic leg? For the running, do you want to go with a wheelchair or a running leg? All the information and advice that you need is there for you, you just have to go for it."
Tomorrow in Abu Dhabi, Lahna will be racing a longer course than usual.
"Normally I do the sprint distance, but I'm doing the short distance," he said of the course which starts on the Corniche. "It's the beginning of the season so I hope to have a good race as preparation for the next challenges."
Next up is the Marathon des Sables in Morocco in April, where he will be looking for new sponsorships that will ensure he continues participating in triathlons until 2016. In every possible sense, it is a long road ahead.
"It's 255km in six days," he said with a casual smile. "I hope I can finish it."
If history is any indication, he will, with a time to spare.
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