Jordanian gymnast Ahmad Abu al-Soud eyes Olympic gold in Paris

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It is fair to say that Jordanian gymnast Ahmad Abu al-Soud was a late bloomer. His is a sport teeming with talented teenagers, the most famous of whom – Simone Biles – was a four-time Olympic gold medalist at the age of 19.

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Al-Soud’s path to the top of gymnastics has required significantly more patience.

In 2015, around his 20th birthday, he was close to quitting the sport. Al-Soud was disillusioned with his lack of competitiveness at the elite level and it was only thanks to the Amman-born gymnast’s impressively deep reserves of resilience that he decided to continue.

Fast forward nine years and al-Soud has left a host of milestones in his wake. In 2022 he became the first Arab athlete to medal at the World Gymnastics Championships as he claimed silver on the pommel horse in Liverpool.

He followed it up with a bronze at the same event in 2023 and has also claimed gold twice in the Asian Championships. Then, in April of this year, came perhaps his most prestigious prize so far: qualification for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Ahmad Abu al-Soud. (Supplied)
Ahmad Abu al-Soud. (Supplied)

Al-Soud, now 29 and somewhat of a gymnastics veteran among his fellow competitors, will become the first Jordanian gymnast to ever compete at the Games.

“I just can’t describe how I’m feeling right now but I am so honored,” al-Soud told Al Arabiya English. “It was my dream that I’ve been working on for 25 years, since I first started at four years old.”

“It was a very very long journey, and I’m so excited. I just can’t wait to compete.”

Despite the Olympics representing the culmination of a quarter-century of dedication to gymnastics, al-Soud – whose father encouraged him to take up the sport after watching his enthusiastic son tumble around their home – is not going to Paris just to participate.

A spectacular 2024 season has seen him claim two World Cup gold medals in Cairo and Doha, plus a silver medal in Cottbus and gold in the World Challenge Cup series event in Antalya. It means the Jordanian goes into the Olympics as the No. 1 ranked pommel horse gymnast in the world, making him favorite to win gold.

“A medal of any color is the minimum requirement but really, of course, I want gold,” al-Soud said. “I think if I do my routine to the best of my ability, I will be unbeatable. Between now and the Olympics, I will be working so hard to make it perfect.”

“As an athlete, all the training time that I give, all the exhaustion – it’s worth it for that moment when I stand on the podium and see the Jordanian flag going up. It feels as though the hard work has paid off and I want that feeling again in Paris.

“If I do win gold, I might retire to be honest because I have been training for so many years now and I’m getting married after the Olympics. I think it’s maybe time to settle down.”
Whether or not al-Soud adds an Olympic gold to his impressive medal haul, he has already – quite literally – written himself into the gymnastics history books.

In 2019, the ‘Abu Al Soud’ was added to the International Federation of Gymnastics (FIG) Code of Points after he flawlessly performed a previously untried maneuver at the 2019 Koper World Challenge Cup in Slovenia.

“I practiced it for three months before we decided to use it in competition,” al-Soud explained. “Then when we did it, I executed it perfectly without any deductions so they accepted it as a new move, and named it after me.”

“This is history; it’s my legacy. It will be there forever and as an Arab, and a Jordanian, I am very proud of this.”

Battle against stigma

Given the success that Al-Soud has recently enjoyed, it is hard to believe that his path to the top of gymnastics has been a tumultuous one. Among the many challenges he faced was a battle against the stigma of being an Arab male gymnast.

“At first most people in Jordan did not really understand it as they thought gymnastics was for girls only,” al-Soud recalled. “But when you win it is easier to win people over and proudly I have been able to do that.”

“Right now in Jordan, we have more men than women doing gymnastics and boys now practice it at school. I believe if I win Olympic gold, I can inspire more kids to take up gymnastics and make them believe that if they trust their dreams they can achieve it.”

“When you see someone from your country can achieve a medal at the Olympic Games it gives you hope. Particularly in Jordan we are a little bit limited in terms of resources – it is not like other countries.”

Financial barriers have also hampered al-Soud, who throughout his career needed to work multiple jobs – including roles as a school gymnastics instructor and as a personal trainer in gyms – to help fund his pursuit of pommel horse medals.

Al-Soud’s other major fight has been against himself – notably a lack of belief in his own ability. His self-doubt reached a nadir in 2015 when he made the decision to walk away from gymnastics, only to talk himself back into the sport.

“I wanted to quit because I had very bad results and I did not feel confident at all,” he recalls. “But I went to the Jordanian Gymnastics Federation and told them I needed one more chance.”

“Then I won a bronze medal at the 2016 World Challenge Cup in Turkey and that is where my journey really began. I started believing in myself and knew I could do a lot more.”

Ahmad Abu al-Soud at FIG World Challenge Cup in Turkey 2024. (Supplied)
Ahmad Abu al-Soud at FIG World Challenge Cup in Turkey 2024. (Supplied)

Al-Soud also discussed mental health in gymnastics and not having resources for help.

“The mental part of gymnastics is so important and, honestly, it has been very hard for me because I’ve never had a doctor or a psychologist to help me; I’ve had to work on my mental health by myself,” the gymnast said.

“I used to get nervous in competitions but now I practice visualization and am much better at blocking everything out. I remember when I won [2022 World Championships] silver in Liverpool, it felt as though everything went silent,” he said.

“I was isolated – just me and the pommel horse. I didn’t hear the crowd, only my coach saying, ‘good job, keep going’.”

Ahead of his Olympics debut in Paris, al-Soud has one final intensive training camp in France. By his side there, and at the Games, will be long-time coach Gurgen Sirekanian – to whom the Jordan’s gold medal hopeful insists he owes a debt of gratitude.

“Without him I wouldn’t be here,” al-Soud said humbly. “He’s very tough with me in training but he’s a true friend outside. He has made me physically and mentally better and helped me achieve great things.”

“I remember the first day he came and he saw me training, he said ‘I will take you to the Olympics’ and everyone laughed – even me,” al-Soud told Al Arabiya English.

“When I finally qualified in April, he just said, ‘what did I tell you?’ I can’t thank him enough and I hope that he will see me win Olympic gold in Paris.”

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