Through Unfathomable Adversity, Ahmed Shafik Is Still One Of The World’s Best Para Powerlifters

by Bob Reinert

Ahmed Shafik competes at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. (Photo by USOPC)

Even Ahmed Shafik has a hard time believing all that he went through over the years to become a two-time Paralympian in powerlifting.

“I go back and think about it. It’s amazing,” said Shafik, 49, who was born in Iraq and now lives in Tucson, Arizona. “I cannot even comprehend what I did, honestly. I cannot even imagine. It’s a lot of things, you know?”

The series of unlikely events began when Shafik contracted polio as a child. While he is still able to walk, his legs were significantly weakened by the disease. Growing up, Shafik became interested in powerlifting, a sport his father, Abdul, competed in. Eventually Shafik followed his dad in representing Iraq in that sport.

“He was my big inspiration,” Shafik said. “I always, when I was a kid, looked to his pictures … holding trophies and gold medals, so he was my big influence. He still follows my lifting.”

Shafik’s first major competition as a Para powerlifter was the 1998 world championships, where he finished in fifth place. After that competition, Shakif said he and the entire Iraqi team were imprisoned and tortured for 14 months by Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime.

Once he was released, Shafik fled the country and reached the U.S. in 2001. He went on to become a civilian contractor with the U.S. Army, a job that resulted in him returning to Iraq.

“They sent me back to my homeland,” he said. “I was working with the troops as a translator. I was in Iraq, on the ground, in the middle of the war. I have a lot of interesting stories about that. It’s really crazy.”

Through it all, Shafik kept his powerlifting dreams alive, and in 2010 he began competing for the U.S. national team. Two years after that he was competing for Team USA at the Paralympic Games London 2012. After failing to record a mark there, Shafik returned to the Paralympics in 2016 in Rio, where he finished seventh.

Though he said at the time that Rio would be his final competition, Shafik’s powerlifting dreams are still burning.

Later this month, and seven days after he turns 50, he’ll be representing Team USA again, this time at the 2023 Parapan American Games, which take place Nov. 17-26 in Santiago, Chile. If all goes as hoped, Shafik could be competing for the red, white and blue again next year at the Paralympic Games Paris 2024.

Shafik previously won a silver and a bronze medal — in 2019 and 2011, respectively — at the Parapan Am Games.

“This year, I (will lift against) a lot of competitive people,” Shafik said. “I’m very confident that I’m going to get (one of) the first three places. I’m really, really close. My numbers are really good.”

Shafik, who in 2022 was ranked second in the world in the legends category (above age 45) in best lift in the 88 kg. weight class, hopes to be in the top 10 among elite lifters in his weight class after the Parapan Am Games.

To qualify for the Paris Games, Shafik needs to be ranked in the top eight of his class by the end of next June.

Because polio affects his gait, Shafik struggles with sciatica and requires physical therapy.

“I got two shots in my back,” he said. “The pain, it’s way better than before, but it’s still there.”

However, that doesn’t stop Shafik from also taking part in able-bodied weightlifting competitions.

“This is another crazy thing,” he said. “I have polio, but I really like to compete with able-bodied (lifters). I do other lifts which … (a) disabled person cannot do. I make myself believe that I’m not disabled.

“It just gives me a lot of confidence in my whole life. My disability didn’t actually hold me back.”

If he reaches the Paralympics next summer, that might signal the end of the road for Shafik as a competitor, but he plans to still have powerlifting be a part of his life.

“I already started talking to our staff that I’m probably going to be moving to the coaching (ranks),” Shafik said. “I’m the oldest one on the team. My team, they’re really, really nice people, and they respect me because I’m the oldest. I have a lot of experience.”

Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.