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Competing Against The Odds: Triathlon Star that Didn’t Quit

Triathlon star Nawar Hani didn’t stop training, not when Mosul fell under occupation, nor when fighter jets roared overhead and bombs rained from the skies

The message from the Iraqi government arrived just three days before Nawar Hani was due to depart for the BRA Triathlon World Championship in Brazil. “They said we regret to inform you that the government cannot provide the funds to support your travel plans,” the 23-year-old athlete recalls. He had spent five months building up to this moment, training seven hours a day to represent his country in the biggest competition of his life. “I was in despair,” he says. 

It had been a long journey to reach this point. Hani, who has won major triathlon events in Turkey and Iraq, is from Mosul and traces his passion for sport to a childhood spent swimming in the waters of the Tigris. Then in June 2014, militants swarmed his city, cutting residents off from the outside world as they enforced their ruthless ideology. Suddenly, the stakes were higher.

triathlon star

His friends stopped training, terrified of the consequences, but Hani continued, despite harassment from militants. “They would say, why are you playing sports? You should join us and fight instead. I was in constant fear for my life.”

Hani found a disused indoor football field and ran laps around the pitch, determined to maintain his edge. Even during the violent battle to liberate the city, he persevered. “I would go very early, but I wasn’t fully focused on practicing because my mind was busy worrying about the fighter jets flying overhead and the bombs pouring from the sky. I could hear the artillery shells as I trained,” he says.

Triathlon Training and Troubleshoots

After months of fierce fighting, the Iraqi government confirmed the liberation of Mosul on July 10, 2017. The dark days were over, but Hani faced further challenges in the years ahead. Without the funds to purchase equipment and hire a coach, he trained alone, relying on moral support from family and friends to boost this resolve. There was no help from local authorities. “The situation for athletes here is really bad, there is no investment, no infrastructure,” he says.

Despite this, Hani managed to make a name for himself, adding to his growing pile of medals from national competitions in Turkey and Iraq. He credits his success to a high fitness level, enabling him to conquer the 1,500m swim followed by the 40km bike route and the 10km run that make up the three events of a triathlon competition, requiring enormous levels of determination, strength and endurance. “My favorite part is the running. It usually comes last, so I benefit because of my high fitness level,” he says.

Swimming is tricker because of the technical skills required, while cycling posed a problem until recently because he couldn’t afford a competition-standard bike. Then in 2021, Faisal saw a Facebook post about Hani and offered to buy him a bike.

Triathlon star

“Nothing is stopping Hani, not a lack of funds or an overabundance of artillery. His determination to achieve his dream, no matter what, embodies not only the spirit of our Innovation Hub program but all Iraqis who will do whatever it takes to create a better life and country,” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders.

For Hani, it was the breakthrough he needed. “I was extremely happy when Faisal contacted me to offer IBB support. This allowed me to prepare for a major national competition, where I secured second place.” This was his ticket to the national team and the West Asia Triathlon Championship in Saudi Arabia, where he competed in December. “When I win, I am the happiest man in the world, especially when I stand on the podium. But my biggest pride was when I was called to represent my country with the national team,” says Hani. 

With his sights set on first place in future races, he is still training hard, spending seven hours a day honing his fitness to competition level. “It isn’t only about sport, it’s about representing my country, so I put my all into the race and treat it like a war,” he says.

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