The coronavirus pandemic has upended most global sporting events and blown even the most dedicated athletes off course, but for the man dubbed “liquid nails” it is but a zephyr.
Ahmed Kelly was given little chance to survive when he was found by nuns outside an orphanage in Baghdad, Iraq.
But, 28 years later, the elite swimmer is preparing for the Tokyo Paralympic Games and would have already represented Australia had COVID-19 not delayed it until next year.
“I know some athletes can’t make the games now — their bodies couldn’t take another 12 months of training,” Kelly says, as he dries himself pool-side at Canberra’s Australian Institute of Sport.
“Some have retired, but I’ve been exposed to so many kids a lot worse off than me.
As athletes falter under the weight of a global pandemic, Kelly is set on making the Paralympics with a single-minded ferocity born only from a past like his.
A fight to survive
Kelly’s grit comes not from a childhood of elite schools and sporting scholarships, but from one spent in orphanages and operating theatres.
He and his brother Emmanuel were abandoned as babies on the doorstep of the Mother Teresa Orphanage in Baghdad.
Ahmed was left at the door, Emmanuel in a shoebox on the street.
Both were born with under-developed limbs and not expected to survive.
“We were just being kids, making the most of everyday and we had no idea what Australia was,” Kelly remembers of his time in Iraq.
The brothers spent seven years at the orphanage until Australian woman Moira Kelly visited the centre in 1998 and brought the boys back to Australia for surgery.
“I remember being really excited to hear we could be leaving, and then a long car trip to a new place,” Kelly said.
But immigration was difficult, and in some cases illegal, under then-leader Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi roads were littered with police checkpoints, blocking residents trying to leave.
Instead the brothers were secretly whisked 1,000 kilometres across the border into Jordan — an easier departure point.
They eventually made it to Australia after weeks of “documentation issues”.
Learning to walk without pain
But as Kelly grew into his new life in Australia, so did the pain in his legs.
“Eventually they were becoming too painful to walk on for long periods.”
Surgery allowed him to wear prostheses and led him to a new passion: Australian rules football.
“I wasn’t particularly good at footy, but I went in hard and just had a crack.”
It was playing for local Victorian team the Kilmore Blues that Kelly’s courage earned him the nickname “nails”.
When he later swapped the Sherrin for Speedos, he became “liquid nails”.
“He likes to train very hard and he is incredibly determined,” Kelly’s coach Yuriy Vdovychenko says pool-side, stop watch in hand.
“But his persistence is strong.”
That persistence is a family trait.
Kelly debuted at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, cheered on by his sisters Trishna and Krishna, the Bangladeshi conjoined twins famously separated in 2009.
Meanwhile, his brother Emmanuel was garnering global praise for his rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine on the talent show The X Factor Australia in 2011.
Emmanuel is now chasing a music career in the United States.
“It’s important that kids know there are people out there like me.
“I really want parents and families to educate their kids, and to get around Paralympic sport.”
‘The world isn’t perfect, and that’s okay’
Next year will be Kelly’s third Paralympic appearance.
As he puts on his prostheses, packs his bag and looks out over the pool, he wonders if it will be his last.
“If it’s my last one, that’s life. And I hope I’ve helped change perspectives because that is the most important thing.
“I just want kids to know the world isn’t perfect, and that’s okay.”