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Window of opportunity for a young weightlifter

HARIS ANSARI is never likely to lose sight of his dream.

Haris Ansari became the first Scottish Asian weightlifter to win gold at an international event in Austria last June.  Picture: Phil Rider
Haris Ansari became the first Scottish Asian weightlifter to win gold at an international event in Austria last June. Picture: Phil Rider

Every day, when the 21-year-old hauls himself out of bed for another early morning gym session, one of the first things he sees from his window is the Clyde Auditorium. The view reaffirms why he has risen at 5am. Allowing his mind to wander, the weightlifter can imagine himself inside the Armadillo in July 2014, standing on a platform competing for a Commonwealth Games medal. "It's so close, literally a three-minute drive away, but I'm still so far away," he muses.

The journey from his Ibrox home is shorter than that from the athletes' village, but the distance he has already travelled is substantial. Just seven years have passed since a scrawny Bellahouston Academy pupil was first spotted in a deadlift competition at his school. That boy becoming the first Scottish Asian weightlifter to win gold at an international event, when he won the 69kg class at the Fulda Cup in Austria last June.

Now his focus is firmly fixed on continuing such stellar progress and earning a place at the Glasgow Games. "I drive past the Armadillo almost every day," he says, "and every time I see it, the more I want to be there. Some people seem to think I'm already there because I've had a little bit of publicity, but there is a massive amount of work for me still to do."

With Weightlifting Scotland intending to take up the full quota of eight men and seven women, Ansari will never have a better opportunity. Although currently around 20kg short of the qualification standard, he believes that maintaining his development will enable him to record the combined 255kg mark at the required two counting events, between June 2013 and April 2014. The hard work begins now.

Already cramming in up to 12 sessions a week, be it lifting, plyometrics or recovery work in the pool, the biomedical science student will have to find time for more. To that end, he has cut back his work commitments with Slaters Menswear but is committed to a placement at the Southern General for the first 13 weeks of next year, meaning that he will be unable to train between 9am and 5pm from Monday to Friday. Hence the early starts.

"If I want to do two sessions a day, I just need to get up early and go again after I'm finished at the hospital," he says. "It's going to be tough, but this placement is a huge opportunity and it means I don't have any exams to worry about in what will be the most important year of my life, both in my career and in weightlifting. It'll be frantic, but it's what I signed up for."

The events of the summer gave Ansari at taste for what Glasgow will be like during the Commonwealths and further fuelled his appetite. Indeed, even his attempts to take a few days off this week after sitting his exams – "I mean days without lifting in the gym; I'd still go for an hour on the bike or the treadmill" – have been stymied by his craving for endorphins.

It was ever thus for a young man who discovered weightlifting almost entirely by accident. A keen badminton player and footballer, it was little more than a moment of teenage machismo that changed his sporting course. "A mate of mine had seen this poster and asked if I wanted to see who could lift the most," he recalls. "I had no idea about technique or anything, but I thought I'd give it a go and it turned out that the skinny guy was the strongest. Since then I've put on 12kg . . . "

Raymond Cavanagh, Scotland's pre-eminent coach, happened to be in attendance that afternoon and invited Ansari along to his Gladiator Weightlifting Club, whereupon he moulded the talented youngster into an international-class athlete.

"I trained for four months, went to my first competition and won," he says of a first year ultimately blighted by injury as his developing frame struggled to adapt to the discipline. "I stood on the platform and that's when I realised this was for me. Suddenly, I was getting attention for being good at something and that does wonders for your self-esteem."

It also helps strengthen the bond between athlete and sport. As he made his way to the Palace of Arts for training, Ansari would often see many of his peers loitering around the adjacent Bellahouston Park. Was he never tempted to join them? Even just the once? "No," he says, emphatically. "I remember thinking 'what am I missing?', because I just didn't see the appeal. I think it was because I was surrounded by the right kind of people – my family, my friends, my coach – and I'm of the mentality that I'd hate to live off my parents. I want to go and work for something myself and make them proud."

That is an attitude that has moved some to paint him as a role model for the younger elements in Scotland's Asian community. Such a burden would weigh heavily on many 21-year-olds but Ansari, whose grandfather moved to Glasgow from Pakistan, is instead energised by the responsibility, viewing it as an honour and reason to redouble his efforts.

He tells a story of a child approaching him at an event a few weeks ago and telling him that he wanted to be like him one day, but he does so without hubris, quietly noting that it merely reminded him of the value of what he was doing.

"You hear and see the whole role model thing and, even though I'm nowhere near world-class level yet, just being there and getting a bit of publicity for winning titles becomes really important to people and that is so humbling," he says. "There are not a lot of Asians in Scottish sport – whether it's the culture or mindset, I don't know – but I really want to break that barrier. More than anything else, though, I just want to make people proud."

n Haris Ansari is one of more than 150 talented athletes to gain support from Winning Students in 2012/13. The programme gives students the platform to perform in their sport and their studies.

www.winningstudents-scotland.ac.uk

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