Egyptian Fatma Omar has two gold medals, a number of world records … and polio. The 35-year-old devoted wife and mother is headed to her third Paralympics in Beijing, September 2008, coming out of retirement to defend her reputation as one of the world’s top disabled powerlifters.
“I’m terrified of the upcoming Paralympics,” says Omar, who must be carried to the weightlifting bench to compete. “The more I win, the heavier becomes the responsibility. I want to keep breaking records.” Living in a society where the disabled are often ignored or considered beggars, Omar didn’t even discover there were sports open to the paralyzed until she was 19, when she saw the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics on television.
“I immediately thought, ‘Why can’t I be like them,’” she recalls. “I want to go to the Paralympics and show people I can do something good. It was a real challenge.”
The first challenge was convincing her parents — her mother was certain Omar would hurt herself. Her father, however, encouraged her to go ahead. At the time, Omar didn’t even know what sport to try. At a local sports club, a coach Omar remembers as ‘Captain Emad’ saw her potential as a world-class powerlifter.
After two years of training, Omar won her first local competition. Her euphoria quickly turned to dismay, however, when Emad told her there were no national or international powerlifting championships for disabled women.
“I was totally frustrated,” Omar recalls. “I thought my success was in vain. I didn’t take up sports to just blow off energy at the local club. I wanted to compete in the Paralympics, just like the athletes I saw on television.”
At the time, women’s powerlifting wasn’t even a Paralympic sport. Omar retreated from the bench, staying away for two years, until Emad called with good news. Egypt was putting together a national powerlifting team to compete in Slovakia. Omar was back in action, training hard and ultimately setting a new world record in Slovakia.
When women’s powerlifting debuted as a medal sport at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, Omar saw her dream of eight years come true. She won the gold medal in the 44 kilogram (96.8 lb) weight class, setting a new world record with a bench press of 107.5 kilograms (236.5 lbs).
“I’m very proud to be the first to raise the Egyptian flag in the first event for women’s powerlifting,” Omar told Al-Ahram Weekly at the games. “We also proved to the world that women are able to compete and set records just like men even though it’s our first appearance in the Paralympic Games.”
It seems like every time Omar takes the bench, the bar goes up and the world record falls. At the 2004 Athens Paralympics, she took gold in the 56 kilogram (123 lb) weight class, setting yet another world record with 130 kilograms (286 lbs). In 2006, at the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in South Korea, she again broke the world record, garnering the gold and a special award for career achievement.
It is a career that changed Omar’s life.
“Before sports, I felt I was an outcast. Every time I went out in public, I saw only normal people, no paralyzed people like me,” she recalls. “My success boosted my ego and self confidence. Now I can go out in public, make friends. I forget about my disability because I’m too busy to think about it.”
No one will argue that Omar is a pillar of strength to the disabled community. While she admits she is considering retiring after the Beijing games, she still wants to be “an inspiration to other paralyzed people, […] encouraging them to break out of their shells as I did.”