As the Australian team puts its all into the 2016 Olympic Games, we speak to one athlete making his Olympic debut in Rio.
What does it take to become an Olympian?
According to 26-year-old Hayder Shkara, determination and a lot of bloody hard work.
The Taekwondo champion is making his debut at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games this year, joining his teammates as a competitor for the first time.
Shkara began learning Taekwondo at the age of eight. By thirteen, he had his heart and mind set on the Olympics.
“I started competing at a national level when I was fourteen. I made my first national team when I was fifteen, as a junior, and I made national team every year after that,” he says.
But his success story is not without its tribulations. Four years ago, Shkara was in a very different place.
“It was a long term goal for me to go to 2012 London,” Shkara says. “Not qualifying was a huge, huge blow to me.”
Shkara just missed out on qualifying for the 2012 team when he lost the finals to New Zealand’s Vaughn Scott – an experience that nearly led him to leave the game.
“I’d been doing sport for a long time, and I just started to work in the legal field. I was making some money, so it was kind of a good time for me to stop,” Shkara said of his dilemma at the time.
“But I spoke with my coach, Ali Khalil, and he was like, you can work for the rest of your life. Just give this another four years and we can achieve something great here.”
It took going to London as a training partner to long-time friend Safwan Khalil, who was competing in the Olympics for the first time that year, to convince him that he should remain in the sport, at least until he achieved his goal.
“There were a lot of times throughout the trip where I was hurting a lot inside and it was painful to be there… So many times you’re so upset and disappointed that it’s not actually you competing on the mats,” Shkara says.
“But seeing the atmosphere and being a part of the team and going to the competition, if I didn’t do that, if I wasn’t selected as a training partner, I wouldn’t have had the motivation to continue for another four years. It was only after seeing that and seeing how amazing that was that I committed to myself – ‘I’ve got to do another four years, push it for another four years or I’ll regret it for the rest of my life’.”
And with that decision made, Shkara came home and made some big changes.
“Before 2012 I was involved in a lot of different things and I was very diversified. I was doing my university degree – which was the least of my concerns in all honesty – I was running my own Taekwondo school, I was training full time and I was working as a paralegal, volunteering and doing a lot of charity work and running programs for a youth centre,” he says.
“But after 2012, I came to realise that I shouldn’t be doing so many things and I’ve really got to cut things off in order to focus in and to achieve this goal. So I did that; I started shredding the excess weight I guess, got rid of everything.”
Shkara stepped down from community projects, finished his combined university degree in journalism and law and sold his Taekwondo school.
Luckily for him, he says, the partners at the law firm in which he practised as a solicitor took his Olympic dream to heart and became some of Shkara’s biggest supporters.
“Once it got past 5 o’clock, 5.15pm, they’d say go home, you gotta go train, and they genuinely wanted me to go to the Olympics.”
By the beginning of 2015, Shkara had quit full-time work, and committed to a regime of full-time training.
“I train twice a day, strength and conditioning in the morning and then in the evening we do a Taekwondo drill, kicking, fighting, sometimes conditioning as well, a bunch of things,” he says.
“The closer you get to the Olympics, the less you train – it’s a tapering off period. What happens is we let the body rest more, we do less sessions, so the body gets more time to recover, so it’s not traumatised, so it’s at 100% every session.”
Shkara says his parents have been a huge support and huge influence in his journey to the Olympics.
“I had to move back home in order to do keep training full time as I couldn’t support myself. They love it – they’re over the moon!”
Shkara comes from a mixed cultural background; his mother is Japanese and his father is Iraqi in origin.
“I think my mum instilled a lot of her cultural values in me, like the work ethic – she works really hard – and in terms of education and support, just to be disciplined and consistent and keep doing what you want to do even if you don’t feel it at the time.”
According to Shkara, that discipline in his dogged pursuit of his goals is a key factor in how he landed in Rio.
“I wasn’t athletically gifted, and I’m not very coordinated, so even now to learn new skills takes a lot of time for me.”
But Shkara has more than a medal in mind.
“I’m just talking off the cuff here, but I don’t think there are many Iraqi people at the Olympics. That’s a good starting point, just to show that the Olympics are for everyone and sports are for everyone, and if you just pursue it and push, you can reach it,” he says.
“The Iraqi community here in Sydney, they’re obviously very disadvantaged, coming from a war-torn country, and a lot of the time the focus for those kind of refugees is on getting jobs and making money – which of course is important. But I’m trying to evoke a greater sense of community – I guess, a national spirit.”
It was a motivation that weighed on his mind when he made the decision to withdraw from the community work and youth centre projects in which he was involved prior to taking on full-time training.
“In all honesty, it just came to a point where I said to myself, you’ve got to put yourself first and just be selfish for the next four years. The way I justified it to myself was: if you achieve this you can come back, and the influence you can have on your community will be better, as you’re coming back from a position where people can look at what you’ve done and try and emulate the same thing,” he says.
Shkara’s passion for making meaningful change is evident.
“I think social justice is a driving factor for me for all my choices,” he says. “Improving conditions for people who are less fortunate – whether it be through telling untold stories of those who are disadvantaged or, through law, helping people who have suffered find the best result for them so that they’re not treated unfairly.”
Although his grassroots social justice work is on hold while he guns for gold at the Olympics, Shkara says it’s only temporary – depending, of course, on how well he does at this year’s Olympics.
“My plan is to go back, work a little more at a firm and eventually open up my own place. That’s the goal,” he says.
So who is Shkara’s major competition at the 2016 Olympic Games this year?
“Well the number one ranked athlete is from Iran actually, so he’s going to be tough,” he says.
“There’s a few tough countries in there, some really obscure countries. That’s the good thing about Taekwondo, you can get good athletes from any part of the world. There’s a really good guy from the Ivory Coast, Tunisia, a guy from Moldova, and then you have the main countries like Germany, England, Russia.”
But off the ground, Shkara says they’re all just really good mates.
“It’s a fighting sport, it’s a full contact sport, but you never really have any malicious feelings towards each other,” he says.
“You can see at the end of the fight they’ll hug each other and hold hands, and that for me shows that they do respect each other – even with [a sport like] boxing. The way you come out, you come out in arms.”
Shkara is only eight days away from his debut match at the Rio Olympic Games. We ask him what he wants most out of this experience in which has invested so much.
“I want to be able to look back on it in one year’s time and say: ‘That was a great experience, no regrets’. That’s my goal for the Olympics,” he says.
“I know that if I’m relaxed and enjoying myself, I will give my best performance.”
To Shkara, holding himself to a positive mindset has been key in getting him through his journey, and he stresses the importance of having good support networks to help sustain this thought process.
“I feel like getting a good result at the Olympics would be a good way to say thank you to everyone who’s supported me along my journey in any kind of little way,” he says.
“It’s a nice way to let them know that their efforts haven’t gone to waste.”
We’re sure it hasn’t.
Good luck, Team Australia!
Hayder is competing in the Men’s 80 kg Taekwondo event on Day 14 of the Olympics, August 19, 2016.