Iranian discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi on coronavirus recovery: “I’m like a white horse”
As the number of positive coronavirus cases soared in Iran in March, Ehsan Hadadi felt that as an active athlete he was not particularly at risk of contracting the virus.
“How can corona attack this big body?”, the discus thrower quipped just weeks before he developed symptoms and was confirmed as one of over 120,000 positive cases in his country.
But as he and his dad experienced the pandemic first hand and fought the virus, the dark period helped him put his career plans into perspective.
Hadidi lost nearly six weeks of training, due to both confinement in the capital Tehran and the illness, but the time away also made him eager to prove his prowess.
“I had good training this season but the crazy corona erased all our plans. This was hard for me, but I learnt that you don’t always have to be chasing after achievements.
"The most important thing is to always be a good person, value life and appreciate good health,” the 2004 world junior champion told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview from his hometown Tehran.
'The big man has corona'
The six-time Asian champion had just wrapped up weeks of intensive training at his preferred training base on Kish Island, off the southern coast of the country.
He had giant hopes for the season ahead and mainly the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Weighing around 135 kilograms and 1.93m [6 ft 4 in] in height, the big man remained upbeat as the virus spread in Iran.
“When I was in Kish island, people were telling me to watch out for the corona. I kept asking them, ‘How can I get corona? I will eat the corona with Iranian rice. How can corona attack this big body? Never!” –Ehsan Hadadi
But when the 35-year-old struggled to get out of bed in late March, he knew something was amiss.
“It started with my parents, they were not feeling so well around March 20, we assumed it’s the normal flu. I cooked for them, made them soups, orange juice, and tried to nurse them back to good health,” he recalled.
“Then after two days, one morning I just couldn’t get out of bed. My whole body was in pain, my head throbbing. I thought it was just a small knock and in two days I would be able to resume training. But sadly with each passing day, I got worse and worse. By the third day, I was feeling very, very bad.
“My [athletics] federation called and I told them, ‘I don’t feel well’. They sent a team from the coronavirus department to our house, who took tests from all of us. The next day my dad and I returned positive tests.
"I couldn’t believe it! It was actually funny. The big man has corona!”
Iran’s gentle giant was down but not out.
“I remember one night when I couldn’t breathe. I was gasping for air, and I wondered, ‘could this be my last day?'
“That was hard for me but I shook off that thought and told myself, ‘no way this is just a small virus, I’ll be fine’,” he said.
Bouncing back from setbacks
He compared that low moment to how he had conquered the many challenges he’s faced in his 20-year career.
“I learnt that you don’t always have to be chasing after achievements." –Ehsan Hadadi
"You might be big, rich, driving a good car, own big parcels of land, but when you are not healthy you have nothing. The most important thing is to always be a good person, value life and appreciate good health.”
As a ‘thin and small boy,’ Hadadi defied the odds to win his country’s first-ever international athletics title when he clinched gold with a throw of 62.14m at the 2004 World Juniors in Italy.
In 2008 as he readied for his Olympic debut he picked up an injury on his throwing hand, his first major knock. The excruciating pain forced him to have surgery.
It was the first of several surgeries he has had.
“I've had seven surgeries. On my hand, knee, back, shoulder... No matter how tough they have been, I recover and I’m always back again competing." –Ehsan Hadadi
"I am now back training after beating corona. I believe I’m like a white horse. Because the horse always has an injury but they come back to action.”
The Asian Games record holder’s relaxed demeanour and never-say-die attitude has helped him to become an outstanding thrower. His continental area record of 69.32m has stood since 2008.
“I am a happy guy. I laugh a lot. I don’t dwell on bad news. I forget it as fast as I can,” the 2011 world bronze medallist declared.
“At the 2008 Olympics I lost because of an injury but I forgot about it. I focused on training and I went to London and picked up the silver medal.
"After London, I was always injured. At Rio 2016, I struggled, same in 2017 at the Worlds. 2018 I was in the world's top list at number three. 2019 the World Championships wasn’t good for me.”
The fourth attempt
It has been a long career for one of Iran’s most recognised track and field athletes.
He was picked out as a good thrower during a handball match when he was only 11. His powerful shot at goal broke the goalpost, bounced and the ball then knocked over the goalkeeper.
And it is the same intensity and passion for his sport that he hopes will carry him to his fourth Olympic Games in Tokyo, and possibly Paris 2024.
“Four Olympics for me is a lot after 16 years competing at the top but I hope and wish that I get the gold medal in Tokyo. Then I will say I have four Olympics and two medals.
"Four Olympics and one medal is not good enough. Maybe also the fifth Olympics I could go to, why not? I’m still in good shape and a young boy.” –Ehsan Hadadi
They are lofty ambitions for a self-sponsored athlete who runs businesses to fund his passion.
“I am still an Olympic silver medallist, not an Olympic champion. I am always thinking of my fifth throw that I fouled at London 2012. I always feel like if I had got that throw right, I could now be an Olympic champion.
"I like the sound of the Olympic champion, I don’t like the sound of, ‘this guy is the Olympic silver medallist’.”
More mental than physical
With his strong arms and athletic abilities, Hadadi has indispensable qualities to achieve what he calls his ‘biggest dream' – winning Olympic gold.
He has lived up to his surname, which means a person who works with iron.
The Iranian has a physical presence on the field.
But he feels it’s his mind game that will get him to his goal.
“In my 20 years in the sport, I have seen a lot of people bigger, stronger than me but they can’t throw far," he said.
"The problem is always in their mind. They panic and overthink during competition. I control my mind. I always tell myself I can do, I need to do and I know that I will do it." –Ehsan Hadadi
The four-time Asian Games gold medallist is surrounding himself with good company in the form of his trainer and compatriot Hossein Tavakkoli, the weightlifting Sydney Olympics gold medallist, and Mac Wilkins, the American discus Olympic champion from Montreal 1976 and former world record holder.
Wilkins, who has coached several Olympic discus throwers, helps him with his drills and technique and has also been instrumental in getting Hadadi to have the right feeling in the ring.
“For me, a competition was like a war. But Mac taught me that I should always have fun while competing. He told me it's like hanging out with friends and I am just competing against them.
"It’s now a lot easier and fun. I’m having some of the best training years now than when I was in my 20s. It’s enjoyable.”