Young woman with Down Syndrome takes gold in powerlifting at the Special Olympics

When I triumphed in that first competition, it felt like all my hard work paid off. Soon, I received a request from the Special Olympic Selection Committee to travel to Malysia. They wanted me to participate in a powerlifting competition there.

  • 2 months ago
  • February 20, 2024
6 min read
Aarti Shah with her medals after winning the Special Olympics 2023 in Abu Dhabi | Photo courtesy Aarti Shah Aarti Shah with her medals after winning the Special Olympics 2023 in Abu Dhabi | Photo courtesy Aarti Shah
Aarti Shah
Thirty-year-old Aarti Shah was born in Nairobi with Down syndrome and three holes in her heart. She underwent surgery and several therapies to be able to speak and develop other skills. As part of her treatment, she started practicing yoga and quickly developed a lot of physical strength to pursue powerlifting. After battling several challenges and training for years, Aarti won the Special Olympics Championship in Abu Dhabi. She won gold in all three categories (Back squat 45kg, Bench press 35kg, Deadlift 67.5kg) and dominated her weight class (57kg-63kg). 
Special Olympics UAE was founded in 1990 to serve athletes with intellectual disabilities through sports competitions and inclusive community programs. The selection to Special Olympics UAE is based on initial qualifying rounds. Aarti won the Special Olympics organized in Abu Dhabi last year. 

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates ꟷ The national anthem of the United Arab Emirates played in the background as the announcers spoke my name in the jam-packed auditorium. The moment I heard the first beats of the song, I knew I won the Special Olympics Championship in Abu Dhabi.

In fact, I clinched gold in all three categories: the back squat, bench press, and deadlift. In fact, I dominated my weight class to secure the overall victory at the 2023 Asian Powerlifting Championship. The moment brought my and my mother’s dream to life after months of intense training.

I share this victory with my mother, for all her determination and grit. When I won, I searched the front row and saw her. Tears of joy rolled down her cheeks as they decorated me with the winning medal.

Read more Sports stories from around the globe at Orato World.

Born with Down Syndrome, my parents refused to limit me

I was born in Nairobi with Down Syndrome and three holes in my heart. At 14 months old, I underwent heart surgery in India. Though it went well, I remained a special child – a reality I lived with all my life. I needed therapy for speech and development.

Doctors told my parents not to expect anything from me, but they refused. My mother and father understood I needed extra help as a special needs child, but her wish to raise me to be independent overshadowed her perception of my disabilities.  

My mother wanted me to be strong and financially capable so I could take care of myself rather than depending on my older siblings. She became my biggest source of inspiration and strength. After my birth, she left her job to ensure I had enough time for my therapies.

They lasted eight hours every day. In her effort to raise me, she lost herself, and her identity. All of that made me wonder, “Can I make her proud? Can I make all her sacrifices worthwhile, despite my limitations?”

Today, I dare say it all paid off. My mother often says, “She now sees the fruits of her hard work.” My ability to respond to questions and prompts took significant effort and support, but in time, I became able to comprehend what I liked and who I wanted to be. 

Raised as an immigrant in Dubai, at school, children laughed at me because of my incompetency. To help me cope, my mother moved me into special education. There, I joined a yoga class after my doctor suggested more natural treatments. Thereafter, I began going to the gym, where my trainer taught me to weightlift.

Powerlifter with Down Syndrome begins winning competitions, to her coach’s surprise

While my new trainer believed I had the body strength to take weightlifting seriously, he failed to convince my mother at first. Nevertheless, I started watching videos and learning more. I began to lift and practice at home. While training for yoga and weightlifting, I joined a group called ‘’Heroes of Hope in Dubai.” The NGO helped people with disabilities develop social and interpersonal skills. Seeing so many students who looked just like me grew my confidence and I stopped feeling inferior.

I wanted to compete professionally, but first I needed to lose some weight. I took time to work on my body. While putting effort in at the gym, I learned to control my consumption, cutting out sugar entirely for four years. With discipline, I became more fit. Having tackled being overweight, I felt ready for powerlifting training.

Aarti Shah working out in the gym |Photo courtesy Aarti Shah

Being part of the NGO brightened my life and one point, they selected me for an ADIDAS ad campaign. With all these events, I kept busy and ignored any negative comments regarding my disability. Apart from my gym training, I learned to dance it helped control my weight. I worked out with weights for two hours and danced for another two. Over four years, I received immense support from my coach and my family. 

My coach Holy Murphy, the founder of Heroes of Hope in Dubai, coordinated the details for me to start competing, he and my mom were simply excited for me to participate. They did not expect me to win. When I triumphed in that first competition, it felt like all my hard work paid off. Soon, I received a request from the Special Olympic Selection Committee to travel to Malysia. They wanted me to participate in a powerlifting competition there. Of course, I accepted. Who would say no to such a life changing opportunity?

My ”momager” would travel with me for two hours, four times a week

Making it the Special Olympics was a dream come true for my mother and me. The long road to Malaysia required training in Abu Dhabi. For this, I traveled two hours four times a week. My mother came every time, never leaving me alone. She always said, “I do not want to miss out on any big moments in your life.” She was on a mission to get me to the Special Olympics.

With her by my side, I felt confident and comfortable. My “mom-ager” managed everything for me. It can be difficult for someone with Down Syndrome to achieve what I have. Women ordinarily face challenges due to gender, but I face double as a disabled woman. In my life, I encountered bad people, but I never lost hope. At times I felt shattered emotionally and even physically; people drained me, but I remained determined.

We tried several things before weightlifting, like swimming and cycling, faced many barriers due to my gender, disability, and not being a native of Dubai. We struggled making headway and while those activities helped me stay fit and gave me enjoyment, my mother never stopped.

From her home in Dubai, Aarti Shah has become a gold medalist powerlifter in the Special Olympics. | Photo courtesy of Aarti Shah

She continued meeting with people and seeking coaches. She ensured I had access to different activities that helped me manage my condition. In time, a miracle happened, and I found my passion. To join the Special Olympics was like an answer to prayer and God’s affirmation of all my hard work. Taking the gold at the Special Olympics gave meaning to all the times I saw my mother cry.

I continue to train, and currently work as a marketing assistant in a firm that works with special needs individuals. At work, I make sure to be sincere and show my dedication. I endeavor to meet my targets and give my bosses no reason to complain, showing up for every shift. They notice and offer support for my training and participation in competitions.

I also hold on to new dreams. As I continue to hone my dancing skills, I dream of one day dancing alongside Bollywood actors Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff. I know my dreams are possible, and I will achieve them.

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