RIYADH: The fifth Islamic Solidarity Games wrapped up on Thursday in Turkey, and it has been a tournament of many highs for the competing Saudi athletes.
The Kingdom’s delegation at the delayed Konya 2021 won 24 medals in total; two gold medals, 12 silver, and 10 bronze.
There was expected glory for Olympic silver medalist Tarek Hamdi in the karate competition, while the track and field, weightlifting and table tennis teams, among others, performed to high standards. And Saudi’s U-23 footballers took silver after narrowly losing out to hosts Turkey in the final.
But perhaps the most poignant story of all is that of Ibrahim Al-Marzouki, the 15-year-old Paralympic athlete, who won Saudi’s first medal of the games, taking bronze after finishing third in the 50-meter butterfly final with a time of 49.12 seconds.
Not surprisingly, his young career has been one of overcoming adversity.
Despite a disability in his arms, the teenager has from a young age believed that the unlikely can be achieved with enough persistence and fortitude.
“At first, my experience was shocking for me, because I faced great pressures and difficulties before I could participate in tournaments,” Al-Marzouki said. “But after this (medal), I have gained great comfort in knowing that I can achieve things. When I face difficulties, I never give up.”
What makes his achievement more remarkable is just how recently he got into competitive swimming.
“My start was about a year ago,” he said. “I went to the Riyadh Club in order to register with the football team. After that, the Saudi swimming national team sent a letter to the club asking for young men who could swim.
“Then my mother suggested that I had a talent for swimming.”
Al-Marzouki quickly rose through the ranks by setting higher training benchmarks.
“I began training with light swimming at the Association of People with Disabilities,” Al-Marzouki said. “After that, I had to sacrifice in order to to reach my goals.”
Having competed for Saudi Arabia at continental level last year, Al-Marzouki headed to Konya for the Islamic Solidarity Games with modest expectations. He ended up surprising even himself.
“I did not feel that I would achieve anything,” he said. “I did not expect that I would be able to complete the journey, 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 timings in the pool were, in his own words, “weak”, but he persevered, and his hard work would eventually bear fruit.
“My times were not good enough to qualify for any championship, but thank God I faced this challenge, trained harder and put pressure on myself and then I reached where I am today.”
Throughout, the support of his mother and father kept him going, he said.
His first official participation for the Saudi Paralympic swimming team came almost nine months ago at the 2021 Asian Youth Para Games in Bahrain, where he took part in five categories, winning a gold and silver.
“I was very happy,” he said. “It is normal that a person rejoices. Even now, I am happy with that first participation. It is true that I won in Turkey, but the joy of the first championship is indescribable.”
After taking part in Bahrain, Al-Marzouki immediately turned his attention to Turkey.
“My daily schedule was to continue training for the Islamic Solidarity Games,” Al-Marzouki said. “I believe that (Konya 2021) is tougher than the Asian championship, and even after I had finished my training the other participants were still ahead of me in terms of preparation and standard.
“But thank God I faced the difficulties and had the confidence in myself to achieve the bronze.”
Al-Marzouki is grateful for the backing and attention that Paralympic sports have received in Saudi Arabia in recent years, with new programs being established alongside those for able-bodied athletes.
The Saudi media too, the swimmer said, have helped massively with their support.
“The exercises I undergo are very tough for me,” Al-Marzouki said. “I used to train with athletes without any disability and not from my category, so the exercises were very challenging but I was able to adapt to them.”
Looking ahead, Al-Marzouki is already targeting the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.
“God willing, with determination, hard work and diligence, I will achieve the gold medal,” said Al-Marzouki, who will only be 17 then.
He praised the work of the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee in helping his 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 in Turkey.
It is a sentiment that every Saudi shares.