We lured Paralympian Ahmed Kelly from training just long enough to have a chat about travel and his bid for gold in Para Swimming at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Ahmed Kelly, tell us a bit about yourself.
Before coming to Australia my brother Emmanuel and I lived in an orphanage in Baghdad, Iraq. We were both born with severely underdeveloped limbs after potentially being exposed to chemical weapons before we were born. Humanitarian worker Moira Kelly came into our lives and soon organised for us to come to Australia to receive medical treatment. Later she decided to put us through school and, before we knew it, Australia became our home.
In 2002 I underwent surgery to remove my legs below my knees. Once my medical needs had been taken care of, Moira organised for me to be homeschooled. Before arriving in Australia I’d never been to school and Moira was concerned how I’d manage at the local primary school. My learning accelerated within 6 to 8 months through homeschooling and I was keen to transition to a traditional school setting. I started in Year 1 as a 9-year-old (children would normally be 5 or 7 years old) and thought it was fantastic to be among other kids. I was like a sponge and really enjoyed my schooling.
What is the biggest challenge you encounter when you travel?
As an athlete I travel quite a bit. In 2010 I travelled to Berlin; it was my first big trip since coming to Australia and I did learn a few lessons on that trip.
On the plane I took off my prosthetic legs as they had become sweaty. But after we landed and when I went to put them back on, my legs had swollen so much, they wouldn’t fit. I needed to ask a flight attendant for a face cloth to bring down the swelling. I’ve now learnt not to take my prosthetic liner off on the plane. The legs are okay to come off but unfortunately the liner must stay on.
Some hotel rooms also have challenges for me. On my first trip, the room I’d been booked in to had a bath with a shower over it, which made it very difficult for me to use. I also find that because I’m on my knees when I shower, some taps in the bathroom are too high to reach.
How do you overcome or manage travel challenges?
After travelling regularly I’ve learnt what’s within my scope and what’s outside of my scope. I’m not afraid to ask for help. For example, on the plane I find it hard to cut up food myself. I’ve found if I ask the cabin crew, they are helpful with opening up containers and even cutting up the food for me. I also need to ask for assistance with getting my carry-on luggage into and out of the overhead lockers. I find the majority of fellow passengers and cabin crew are patient and helpful.
Another challenge is the confined bathroom space on planes. The door handles on the inside of these bathrooms can also be difficult to operate. In the past I’ve asked the cabin crew to assist by opening the door when I give a light knock as a signal that I’m ready to come out from the bathroom. Again, they’ve been happy to assist. I’ve found Etihad Airways, Qantas and Singapore Airlines have larger bathrooms.
Tell us about what makes a holiday a success for you.
I’ve been lucky that each trip I’ve taken has been smooth. Because I travel with a team, we have a team manager who checks out all the accessibility for us. I also find the helpful attitude of people makes my travels a success.
What are your top travel tips?
I’ve learnt small changes can make a difference. Something as simple as choosing a travel wallet that doesn’t have a zipper (which is difficult for me to unzip multiple times) makes my airport experience quicker and easier.
Travelling regularly, I’ve found I can speed up the process at security by being open to questions. I let them know I’m prepared to be assessed openly in public. I’ve never been asked to take my legs off, but I have been asked to remove my shoes, so having them loose and ready makes it quicker.
I’m always vigilant on a flight to keep hydrated and do stretches for my wellbeing.
I learned the hard way with liquids within my suitcase and recommend keeping them in a zip-lock bag. Once I had liquid spill throughout my luggage and I was not happy!
Lastly, travel with a light powerboard. There are never enough accessible power points in a hotel room, and by travelling with a powerboard you only need one adaptor for the country you’re travelling to.
What does travel mean to you?
Travel offers new opportunities and the ability to learn lots of different things about myself and the country I’m travelling to. It gives me the chance to make new friends and learn how to handle new situations. I always try to be myself and attempt to learn even a few words in the local language.
When I travelled to Rio our swimming team tried to learn a bit of Portuguese so when we went to dinner we could briefly acknowledge the local staff.
What improvements would you like to see in the tourism industry?
It would be great to find a way for wheelchair users to easily access the aircraft bathrooms. And for me it would be easier to eat with firmer airline cutlery – like they have in business class. This is because firmer cutlery is able to fit inside my arm cuff, which is velcroed on.
Tell us about your hopes for the future.
World Championships are on this year in September in London and I think a fair few world records will be broken there. I’m hoping the Aussie team does really well and it provides a confidence booster in the lead up to Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Currently I’m training 6 days a week. I do 8 to 9 swimming sessions and 2 to 3 gym sessions a week. I’m building towards my third Games, which will be in Tokyo, Japan.
The challenge will be to keep up the high intensity but I’m as motivated as ever!
This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.