Blind Weightlifter Inspires

Blind weightlifter Malek Chamoun lifts the human spirit

Mike Hurst
The Daily Telegraph
October 15, 201112:00AM

‘YOU know, the guy who runs on carbon fibre blades because he has no legs.’ That was the answer to the incredulous question: “Who is Oscar Pistorius?”

The young man who posed it is Malek Chamoun, a 22-year-old weightlifter from Summer Hill in Sydney’s inner west. At the recent Australian championships, Chamoun qualified to compete at the world championships in Paris next month.

The reason Pistorius came up in conversation is that, like South Africa’s Blade Runner who fought disability to compete in the open world athletics championships this year, Chamoun, also has a handicap that he has overcome with a mix of courage, persistence and ingenuity.

And the reason Chamoun may be one of the few people in the Western world who did not know about Pistorius probably has a lot to do with the fact that he doesn’t watch TV, doesn’t watch YouTube, and doesn’t read newspapers.

He doesn’t because he cannot see. Chamoun was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the age of seven and by 15 was declared legally blind.

The condition has continued to deteriorate over time and today he must use a cane to get around.

Yet with his father George, a former Australian weightlifting representative, as his coach and with mother Rita supporting on the home front, Malek took up weightlifting at age 12 and, after many frustrations and setbacks, he has earned his own Oscar moment with a performance every bit as good, if not superior to anything Pistorius has ever achieved in the world able-bodied arena.

“I adapted. Now I’ve mastered it,” Chamoun explains in reference to overcoming issues of balance under a moving bar loaded to test the strongest minds and bodies.

“To learn the lifts, other people do it by seeing it done, but I learned to do it all by feel. I use my other senses. Balance is an issue I seem to have worked out.”

He placed second, just 6kg in total, behind Commonwealth Games gold medallist Simplice Ribouem, in the 85kg bodyweight division at the recent nationals. Chamoun tallied 319kg with competition personal-best lifts of 140kg for the snatch and 179kg for the clean-and-jerk.

Both Chamoun and Ribouem are among the seven-member team for the world championships, with Chamoun supported at the highest scholarship level by the NSW Institute of Sport - the only lifter from NSW.

“I’m not sure how many people will compete in my division in Paris or where I’m ranked,” Chamoun says after returning from TAFE where he studies remedial massage.

“But still I’m good enough to be there, although there’s no chance of a medal.”

Then the weightlifting training starts at home on the most inspirational stage imaginable: the actual Sydney Olympic weightlifting platform, which his father bought at auction.

“I can see the weights, but not properly,” Chamoun says.

"If there are several red plates they blend into each other. I can see a blur of a bar.

"The weights are easier to see than the bar. But I know the bar is going to be in the middle of the platform.

"I walk forward up until my legs touch the bar.

“And I can feel markings on the bar so I can adjust my grip.” To the best of anyone in Australian weightlifting’s knowledge, Chamoun will be the first blind person to compete at the world championships.

And the qualifying weight is the same for next year’s Olympic Games in London, but only one representative will go, so even attaining the superhuman tally will not suffice. He must win the trials, be the top qualifier. No blind person has ever won a national title.

So on five days every week, morning and again in the afternoon, Chamoun lifts under the watch of his father. And they will continue to work together until the final moment before Malek competes.

“My dad guides me right up to the edge of the platform,” Chamoun says. "Every other lifter comes to the stage alone. In competition, you get 60 seconds to lift. I don’t talk for 30 seconds, and then lift.

“I take longer to get to the platform so we have to be ready straight away.”

And he may become the first blind weightlifter to compete in the Olympics when he could get to meet Pistorius.

Both young men were born to lift the human spirit.

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Impressive C&J 179kg.

I use to train at a gym with a blind lifter. His technique was the best I have ever seen. His guide dog use to sleep under the chair next to the platform. I wish this young man well.