Egyptian champion Amr El-Sohagy will have reached a remarkable milestone when he lines up at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City next month.
The 32-year-old swimmer has been wheelchair-bound since 2010, when a horrific car accident on his way back from a holiday on Egypt's Mediterranean coast left him quadriplegic.
"I lived in bed for almost two years. My eyes were the only body part I could move back then," the former legal specialist and boxer tells Ahram Online.
Being thrown into such adversity would have been daunting for anyone, but was all the more so for El-Sohagy, who is still coming to terms with a devastating accident which had also taken the life of his cousin, who he describes as his best friend.
"After the accident, I felt like I was standing on a bridge that had suddenly vanished,” he recalls.
"To come out of it at the other end, to prove that I can do anything like able-bodied people but in a different way – and most importantly as a sportsperson I can achieve at world level, is what pushes me forward.”
In July, El-Sohagy won a gold medal in the Berlin 2017 World Para Swimming World Series, where the world’s best athletes got the chance to compete before they head to Mexico City for the World Para Swimming Championships.
He's now ranked fourth in the World Para Swimming Rankings 2017 for Men's 50m breaststroke in the SB1 sport class, in which swimmers mainly rely on their heads, arms and shoulders for swimming. Their hand, trunk and leg function is limited as a result of their physical impairment which may include tetraplegia or co-ordination problems.
El-Sohagy is the only athlete competing in this sport category in Egypt and one of only a few worldwide.
El-Sohagy in Berlin during the 2017 World Para Swimming World Series, July 2017.
From sinking to competing
After his accident, El-Sohagy spent two years travelling on a stretcher to undergo a series of necessary operations in a number of countries including China, Germany and the Czech Republic. He regained some sensation and was able to move his body and use a wheelchair three years later.
More doors started to open, he believes, once he became paralysed; but it was only when he began hydrotherapy in 2014 as part of his rehabilitation that he started to get into swimming.
For him, there's no excuse not to jump in at the deep end.
"At first I would drown in a 1-metre deep children's pool. My arm muscle power was that of a year-old toddler," he says.
But the future champion persisted, and after a year of swimming, he decided he wanted to do it professionally. After only three months, he tested himself as an elite athlete and contested in Egypt's national championship.
He won his first medal a few months later in the Egypt Cup, beating athletes with less severe activity limitation.
Since the accident, El-Sohagy has been living in a rehab centre on the outskirts of Cairo, visiting his family--who had lived with him until 2015--every now and then.
"I consider myself in a closed training camp for the long haul," he says.
His outlook on life leaves no room for desperation, he says, allowing him to detach himself from anything that could waste his time or distract him from his ultimate goal, which is to walk again.
"I had two choices: either to be settled at home and come and go for my treatment, which would not be rewarding enough, or stay here and be entirely devoted," he says.
He follows a punishing daily training schedule, with five hours of swimming, five hours at the gym, and two hours of physiotherapy. In between, he volunteers for disability advocacy group Helm, gives motivational talks, writes a blog and is studying for a diploma in physiotherapy assistance.
“I push the boundaries,” he says.
El-Sohagy working out at a gym in a rehab centre on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, October 31, 2017 (Photo: Ayat Al-Tawy)
Against the odds
Most people with tetraplegia (total or partial paralysis in all four limbs) have significant paralysis below the neck, and many are completely unable to move; treatment options for spinal cord injury are limited.
But El-Sohagy's ability to see himself as capable instead of handicapped has permeated his life.
"At first, I needed help with lifting an empty bar. Now I can lift over 200kg," he says.
At one point, he locked himself in for months to train muscles in his hands and fingers so he would be able to eat independently, without being fed.
"I always try to consider the wheelchair a temporary thing rather than feel at ease in it. I don't want to adapt to it. When your brain gets used to something, it will live with it,” he says.
Defying doctor's expectations, El-Sohagy has more recently been moving about with walking aides as part of his daily treatment programme.
“I sent a photo of myself while walking using a walker to my doctor in the Czech Republic and he was in shock,” the athlete notes with pride.
"This was my first major victory."
El-Sohagy is also an advocate for disabled people in Egypt, who he believes are often regarded “as second-class citizens.”
Around 15 percent of the population are estimated to live with a disability, but advocacy groups argue the disabled have less access to care and worse health outcomes than the able-bodied.
El-Sohagy also laments the fact that disabled athletes often receive less support; his own trip to the Berlin competition was self-funded, and many other disabled athletes face similar financial burdens.
"The government gives all its attention to football and forgets about the disabled, who in fact bring the country a larger number of medals and titles," he argues.
But he told Ahram Online he hopes the coming year, which Egyptian President Abde-Fattah El-Sisi has declared “the year of people with disabilities,” could see progress.
"I want to see sidewalks that disabled people can use, and wide gates for buildings, and a law that bans granting licences to buildings that fail to be accessible to people with disabilities," he says.
For El-Sohagy the athlete, there are also personal goals. After the Mexican games next year, he hopes to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
Having said that, so unshakeable is his faith in his ability to walk again that he fears recovery might mean he won't be able to compete.
That kind of progress may sound unlikely, but as El-Sohagy notes, he is in the business of proving that nothing is impossible.