Kashafali blazing a trail on the sprinting scene

Norway’s T12 visually impaired sprinter Salum Kashafali – who created history in contesting the 100m at the European Athletics Team Championships First League in Sandnes, Norway – will run in the Paris Diamond League meeting next week.

The 25-year-old para world record-holder helped the hosts earn a highly creditable third place in the overall standings and is targeting his first World Para Athletics Championships later this year.

In his first para race at Nottwil in Switzerland in May he set a world record of 10.58 which he improved to 10.45 in the Bislett Games in Oslo on 13 June, making him the fastest Paralympian sprinter. A week later he ran 10.44 in Lillehammer, although that mark is not eligible as a world record.

The weekend before Sandnes, Kashafali – who missed almost two years with a hamstring injury before getting back to the track this season – had won the national title in 10.37, but with an illegally strong following wind for record purposes.

Kashafali received an invitation at the weekend to take part in a para-athletics 100m at this Sunday’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in Birmingham, only to learn the next day that the race was not going ahead because of problems assembling the field.

But he is all booked up for a 100m race at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris on 24 August. “I’m very excited about Paris,” he said. “I will be going over there and giving my all.”

That competition is his main aim ahead of the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai from November 7-15 this year.

Kashafali’s selection for the Norwegian team at the European Athletics Team Championships First League – announced on the eve of competition due to a late withdrawal – meant he matched the rare feat notably accomplished by US middle distance athlete Marla Runyan of competing in a main international competition as a visually-impaired athlete.

Runyan, five times a Paralympic champion, subsequently became the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympics when she took part in the 1500m at the 2000 Sydney Games, finishing eighth in the final.

Kashafali was a little nonplussed when the historical significance of his achievement was pointed out. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said with a laugh. “I haven’t been in para athletics long, so I am still learning about what other para athletes have done.”

One name that has registered with him thus far, however, is Noah Malone, the 19-year-old from the United States who is shaping up to be one of his main rivals for the T12 100m title when he races in Dubai.

“He’s one to watch,” he said. “I haven’t raced him yet, but I know he’s run 10.58. He won’t be in Paris, as he’s gone back home after competing in the world U20 championships a few weeks ago. It looks like he will keep me on my toes in Dubai.”

The following year, Kashafali added, he will be working on his 200m, which is included in the programme at the 2020 Paralympics – the target that lies beyond this year’s World Championships. “The 200m is going to be more of a focus next year, and I will be going for Tokyo,” he said.

Kashafali arrived in Norway as a refugee from the Congo when he was 11, was classified as a para athlete earlier this year as he suffers from a degenerative, congenital eye congenital condition – Stargardt disease – that is expected, eventually, to claim his sight.

Life in Congo had been difficult and dangerous as a civil war had resulted in the death of millions of people and resulted in widespread disease and malnutrition.

“When I was a kid I was just trying to find food, like everybody else,” Kashafali told World Para Sport. “My childhood was not about running or playing football, it was about finding food – surviving.”

He settled with his family in Bergen, where he teaches maths to 13-15 year-olds at a local school. Kashafali is now feeling comfortable in his new athletics environment after running for many years in open competition.

“People have been tremendous about me moving to para athletics,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of support. To go from normal athletics to para athletics – I didn’t know how it was going to go. You can’t immediately see that I have a vision impairment. You have to look a little bit closer, to follow me a little bit, to see that.

“Some people thought I was faking – they didn’t believe me at first. But most people have been very good and very supportive to me. They know me now. I can be normal with people, with my fellow paras.”

He recalled the difficulties he had in running the 200m at his recent national championships. “I got to the final, but when I came to the turn I was confused – ‘where are the other runners?’ Then I had to try and catch them up, but it was too late. I made a fool of myself.

“I will be happier running the 200m in para competition because then we have two lanes each.”

Kashafali nearly missed out on a place in the 100m final in Sandnes when he dipped too early because he had mistaken a line that had been painted shortly before the main finish line on the newly laid track.

After claiming the eighth and final qualifying place, he had been very hard on himself afterwards, saying: “I wanted to execute my race better – I’m very disappointed with myself.”

However, as he arrived at the Sandnes Stadium on day three to do some training and cheer on his team, he added: “One of my fellow athletes told me not to worry because the main thing was I got through. But they also said ‘if you didn’t make it to the final that would have been fine because we know what the situation is.’ To have a teammate come and say that to me – that meant a lot – that raised me back up.”

Looking ahead to Dubai, he said: “I want to go there and try and do a good presentation of my abilities and to take it from there.

“I know people around me are expecting me to take the title, but to me it’s about going there to have fun and do the best I can. I am enjoying running, really loving it. Sandnes was great, when I was taking my tracksuit off, and people were shouting and screaming in support.

“There are many people around in hospital that wish they could walk, or see. For me just to be able to go out here and run, that’s all I needed. If I got to do that, it doesn’t matter if I came in first or last place, to be honest.”

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