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How Saudi hero Ibrahim Al-Marzouki overcame adversity to win bronze at the Islamic Solidarity Games

RIYADH: The fifth Islamic Solidarity Games ended in Turkey on Thursday, and it was a tournament of many heights for the competing Saudi athletes.

The Kingdom’s delegation to the delayed Konya 2021 won 24 medals in total; two gold medals, 12 silver and 10 bronze.

Glory was expected for Olympic silver medalist Tarek Hamdi in the karate competition, while the athletics, weightlifting and table tennis teams, among others, performed strongly. And the Saudi U-23 footballers clinched silver after narrowly losing to hosts Turkey in the final.

But perhaps the most poignant story of all is that of Ibrahim Al-Marzouki, the 15-year-old Paralympian, who won Saudi Arabia’s first medal of the Games, winning bronze after finishing third in the final of the 50 meter butterfly with a time of 49.12 seconds.

Unsurprisingly, his young career has been one of overcoming adversity.

Despite a disability in his arms, the teenager believed from an early age that the improbable can be achieved with enough perseverance and courage.

“At the beginning, my experience was shocking for me, because I had to face great pressures and difficulties before I could participate in tournaments,” said Al-Marzouki. “But after this (medal), I got great comfort knowing that I can accomplish things. When I encounter difficulties, I never give up.

What makes his achievement more remarkable is how recently he got into competitive swimming.

“My beginnings go back about a year,” he said. “I went to the Riyadh Club to enroll in the soccer team. After that, the Saudi national swimming team sent a letter to the club asking for young men who can swim.

“Then my mother suggested that I had a talent for swimming.”

Al-Marzouki quickly rose through the ranks by setting higher training standards.

“I started training with light swimming at the Disabled People’s Association,” Al-Marzouki said. “After that, I had to make sacrifices to achieve my goals.”

After competing for Saudi Arabia at continental level last year, Al-Marzouki traveled to Konya for the Islamic Solidarity Games with modest expectations. He ended up surprising himself.

“I didn’t think I was going to achieve anything,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be able to finish the course, compared to the swimmers I was up against. They were stronger than me, with a long history in swimming.

Al-Marzouki has faced many challenges over the past 12 months before claiming glory in Turkey.

At first, his times in the pool were, in his own words, “poor”, but he persevered and his hard work would eventually pay off.

“My times weren’t good enough to qualify for any championship, but thank goodness I took that challenge, trained harder and put the pressure on myself, then reached where I am today.”

Throughout, the support of his mother and father sustained him, he said.

His first official appearance for the Saudi Paralympic swimming team came almost nine months ago at the 2021 Asian Youth Paralympic Games in Bahrain, where he competed in five categories, winning a gold medal and a silver.

“I was very happy,” he said. “It is normal for a person to rejoice. Even now, I am happy with this first participation. It’s true that I won in Turkey, but the joy of the first championship is indescribable.

After participating in Bahrain, Al-Marzouki immediately turned to Turkey.

“My daily schedule was to continue training for the Islamic Solidarity Games,” Al-Marzouki said. “I believe (Konya 2021) is more difficult than the Asian Championship, and even after I finished my training, the other participants were still ahead of me in terms of preparation and level.

“But thank God I faced the difficulties and had the confidence to get the bronze.”

Al-Marzouki is grateful for the support and attention Paralympic sports have received in Saudi Arabia in recent years, with new programs introduced alongside those for able-bodied athletes.

The Saudi media too, the swimmer said, have been overwhelmingly helpful with their support.

“The exercises I undergo are very difficult for me,” Al-Marzouki said. “I used to train with able-bodied athletes and not in my category, so the exercises were very difficult but I was able to adapt.”

Looking ahead, Al-Marzouki is already aiming for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.

“God willing, with determination, hard work and diligence, I will get the gold medal,” said Al-Marzouki, who was only 17 at the time.

He praised the work of the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee to help its development, and in particular its President, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, for his support.

“You are a special hero and we will shine the spotlight on you because you deserve it,” Prince Abdulaziz said after Al-Marzouki’s bronze medal in Turkey.

It is a feeling that all Saudis share.

James R. Rhodes