One sunny Summer afternoon in 2012, an unaspiring young man watched the London Olympic and Paralympic games from his sofa in Surrey, pint of beer in hand, Doritos aside and eyes fixated, behind thick glass lenses, on the awe-inspiring figures gracing the Stratford track. That shy, overweight 22 year-old watching on was Moatez Jomni. Much has changed when I meet him four years later at his training base, St Mary’s University in Twickenham.
Jomni, 27, is currently deep in to a training program at the Weir-Archer academy, set up by six-time Paralympic gold-medalist David Weir and his coach Jenny Archer, that he hopes will lead him to his first Paralympic Games in Rio this Summer. His most notable accolades to date include a gold medal in the T53 400 meters at the 2014 European Championships in Swansea as well as 800 meter bronze, despite puncturing and replacing a tire himself just five minutes before the race.
Disabled athletes like Mo are given a classification depending on the extent of their impairment to ensure competition is fair, and his classification is T53. This is defined as ‘limb deficiency, leg length difference, impaired muscle power or range of movement’.
He added another bronze last year in the World Championship T53 200 meter final in Doha but that does not guarantee qualification for Rio.”I like that as I don’t want to rely on last years’ success as I want to improve. You just need to stay sharp.”
He has no doubts he will be setting up on the start line at this years Paralympic Games in Rio and is aiming to blow his past successes out the water. “I want that gold in the 400 meters. The one (event) I hate. It’s a full out burst of just speed, power and technique. I always hated it but I find it most thrilling. I don’t want to jinx myself.”
The Tunisian born athlete knows how fine the winning margin can be after missing out on a second podium place in Doha by just 0.21 seconds, where track temperatures exceeded 33 degrees Celsius. In preparation for hot weather competition, the team train in a lottery funded heat chamber at the training centre. “Heat plays a big role. To be mentally and physically ready (for Doha), if I didn’t do that I’d have been finished.”
At just four years old, while in Tunisia, Mo was hit and run over by a van and then a taxi. The accident left him in a six-month coma fighting for his life. “It was life changing. But I’m still here and that’s the only way to look at it. If I didn’t have it (the accident) as young as I did, I wouldn’t have handled it as well. The older you get injured, the more it affects you. I grew up on it.” A commendably bright outlook does not totally mask how tough it was for his four year-old self to come through it at all, let alone to make such a success out of it. “I can remember bits and bobs from me waking up during surgery which is kind of scary.”
His father took a job in London and moved his family to England where the six year- old underwent five years of expert medical rehab for his injuries including spinal fixation and physio at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire. “I learnt a lot about rehab, bones, tissue and medication, I could have graduated as a doctor.” The second eldest child of a Foreign Office diplomat, he is proud of his North African roots. He is prouder though, of his adopted homeland with never any question of national allegiance. “Britain was the one”, he says smiling with a reminiscent look. “I’ll never forget my culture but when you grow up here, that’s all you know and that’s who you want to do it (compete) for.”
Another thing he won’t forget is the terror attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, last June, when 30 Britons were killed. Mo, who was in the country for Christmas six months before said he, and especially his dad, were profoundly affected by what happened. “A bunch of my dads friends from the army died. He knew those guys and I’d met them too. I’ve never seen a guy smoke so many cigarettes and drink so much whiskey in one night.”
On top of the obvious physical challenge he faced, it became clear that Mo would have to fight a mental battle too. After falling ill he was forced to return to hospital for another two years causing him to cease his studies in social care. That lead him to the dark depths of depression forcing him to re-evaluate his life ambitions. “I thought let me go back to basics and I thought of athletics. I always loved it as a kid.” Mo recovered his health and, after those crushingly low points in hospital, aged 23, seized his chance to be reborn – through sport. He picked up the phone and got in touch with UK Athletics to find out how he could get involved. They pointed him towards David Weir and Jenny Archer.
The ability to find the positives, among the negatives, is admirable and typifies the nature of his sport, but he also has an incredible team around him to thank. In particular, coach Jenny Archer (‘a mind reader and hard as nails’ according to Mo) never fails to get the best out of all her athletes. She is well renowned for whipping the likes of Vinnie Jones and John Fashanu into shape at AFC Wimbledon in the 80’s, a time when fitness wasn’t seen to be as important in football as now. She is regarded by the players of that team as being responsible for their F.A Cup success. “When I arrived some of the players couldn’t even touch their toes”, Archer pointed out.
“The woman’s just so full of energy and positivity, insists Mo. “What makes her strong is that she spends a lot of time with you.” This is what separates the good coaches from the excellent ones – a relationship with her athletes that goes way beyond just the training sessions, from her ability to sense if you’re not feeling 100% on any given day, to night time phone call check-ups. Archer said “After London 2012, more people started coming down to the track. We had to turn a lot of them away as we couldn’t cope with the numbers. I kept Mo on though because I could see how much it meant to him.”
Jomni recalls how he required extra motivation from Archer to start with. “First day I loved it, it was snowing, she said go on push, I was like but it’s minus 1 out here. ‘Either you want it or not, that’s up to you mate’.”With that, and no gloves, he began pushing around the icy track, and this summer in Brazil is what he has been pushing himself towards ever since.
Imagine the most successful person currently in your sport is the same one to train and guide you from day one. This was the case when Mo arrived at the Weir-Archer Academy. “Everybody knows them but I didn’t. I thought who’s David Weir. I was blind to the athletics world but yet I wanted to do it.” Having a coach who is still competing and holds six Paralympic gold medals himself is invaluable. “He’s an Arsenal fan, but he’s also a great mentor. Because he’s been there and done it, the guy has that knowledge, it’s a pleasure to train with him, even though I didn’t know who he was at first.”
As well as the close support of his team, like all other Olympic and Paralympic athletes, the T53 Rio hopeful receives funding from UK Sport. For the first year when Mo started out, he was using a kids chair due to the expense of the equipment. Now he receives extra funding from charity WheelPower to allow him to pay for his £3000 wheelchair. The carbon fibre wheels can cost up to £900 each. “The chair is so important because it’s all custom made to your own adaption. You do overpower your chair funnily enough. The way you get stronger or get weaker or you lose weight around the hips has an effect on you. So there is always the need to replace the chair in order to suit personal adaptations.”
This is without doubt the biggest year of Mo’s career so far. He has a solid chance of medalling on the biggest stage of all. “I’ve been in the game four years now, the Euros in Swansea was my stepping stone. Let’s go for it, I can’t wait.”