Australian Paralympic swimmer Ahmed Kelly earned his hard-as-nails reputation playing Aussie rules, but he'd done plenty to justify it before he even took to the field. The 25-year-old grew up in a war zone, abandoned at an Iraqi orphanage with severely deformed limbs. "I was born with no arms and no legs. It's thought to be due to exposure to chemical weapons," he told AAP.
His life changed at age seven when he was adopted by humanitarian Moira Kelly and brought to Australia to receive treatment. He is now a genuine contender for a gold medal in swimming at the Rio Paralympic Games, being held from September 7-18. "I want to get a personal best time.
Hopefully that's good enough for me to get on the podium, and a gold medal would be an amazing bonus," he said. Kelly got the nickname "Nails" for his tough playing style with his local AFL team as a teenager in Victoria. "I got `Nails' for attacking the footy without any fear, I played with a lot of passion and desperation," he said. When Kelly took to the pool and later debuted at the 2012 London Paralympics, that moniker became "Liquid Nails'.
The Melbourne-based athlete came agonisingly close to a podium finish in London, with a fourth in the 50-metre breaststroke. He's hoping to close that gap in Rio, and drastically improved his time at the April selection trials in Adelaide. "Compared to what I swam in London, it was about a second and a half improvement," he said.
And he's ramped up his training schedule to 11 sessions a week in the hopes of bringing home gold. Kelly is also studying for a journalism degree part-time, and says he'll always be thankful to his mum Moira for giving him and his brother Emmanuel a new life. Upon arriving in Australia, Kelly underwent surgery to remove the deformed sections of his lower legs and had to learn to walk all over again with prostheses.
"The operation came and it was quite scary at first, but I just couldn't wait to walk like everybody else," he said. "There I was getting ready to wear prosthetic legs and when I put them on, it just felt like magic." Kelly says two of his biggest fans are his adopted little sisters, Trishna and Krishna.
The Bangladeshi conjoined twins made worldwide headlines in 2009 when they underwent a 32-hour operation to separate them. "They won't be making the long journey (to Rio), they're not quite ready for that just yet," Kelly said. "No matter how tired they are, they better wake up and watch the race. Or at least record it!"
The girls are now nine, and Kelly wants to show them that anything is possible. "I hope I can be the person to give them good advice to tackle some of life's tough challenges," he said.