Overcoming obstacles

Salum Kashafali prevails as world’s best in 100 meters for visually impaired

Salum Kashafali

Photo: International Paralympic Committee
Salum Kashafali wins the 100 meters at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November.

Michael Kleiner
The Norwegian American

Imagine the gold medal Salum Kashafali pined for he can hardly see. Imagine he can only see the finish line at a certain distance. Imagine that 15 years ago, his daily goals were finding food and survival in his native Congo. Getting from A to B had a different meaning than now. 

You get an even greater appreciation for what the 25-year-old accomplished by winning the 100 meters at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November. The now-Bergen resident put the burners on in the stretch, clocking a championship record of 10.54 in the T12 class. He outraced two Brazilians, Joseferson de Oliveira (by .23) and Fabricio Ferreira. He celebrated by rolling around on the track. Earlier this year, Kashafali set the world record for the visually impaired—regardless of class—of 10.44. He is the first Norwegian, para or able, to win a 100 meter world championship.

Then imagine this was his first year as a para athlete and he missed two years of competition due to a hamstring injury.

Salum Kashafali

Photo: International Paralympic Committee
Kashafali crosses the finish line in Dubai.

“I came here with the goal of taking a medal, and preferably gold,” Kashafali said to Bergen Tidende after the race. “I can’t describe how wonderful it is to become a world champion. It feels amazing. I hope people discover what we para athletes achieve.”

“This is absolutely fantastic, and a historic day, with the first Norwegian gold in a 100-meters,” said Christina Vukicevic Demidov, sports director for Norwegian Para Athletics to BT. “We are extremely proud of him.”

There are three classes for visually impaired track athletes: T11, T12, and T13. According to the worldparalympic.org website, T11 is for “very low visual acuity and/or no light perception;” T12, “higher visual acuity than athletes competing in the T11 sport class and/or a visual field of less than five degrees radius;” and T13, “the least severe vision impairment eligible for para athletics. They have the highest visual acuity and/or a visual field of less than 20 degrees radius.”

Kashafali was diagnosed with the incurable congenital Stargardt’s disease at age 12, when he and his teachers realized he was having trouble reading. Kashafali has 5 percent acuity, but his sight will only get worse.

Yet, for several years he competed against “functional” athletes and played soccer with friends.

“But it got to the point that I couldn’t see anything,” he said in a June 13 article on Paralympic.org. “So, I tried track, and I won my first race.”

He was 17. In 2015, he won the 60-meter indoor Norwegian championship against “able bodied” runners. His vision was giving him trouble, unable to see the finish line clearly, and running around the turns was difficult. In 2017, he suffered the hamstring injury that kept him on the sidelines until this season.

As hard as that was, it couldn’t compare with his early childhood. Congo was racked by a civil war, millions of deaths, 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.”

In 2004, the Kashafali family immigrated to Norway and settled in Bergen. He was 11 years old.

“It was very hard, as I only spoke Swahili and French, so it was very difficult to adapt, but I came through it in the end with the help of friends,” he said to Paralympic.org.

When Kashafali, who trains at the Norna-Salhus club, returned to the track this season, there was adapting to the para athletics format and style. He made up for lost “time” with a vengeance.

Salum Kashifali

Photo: International Paralympic Committee
The runner takes a moment to bask in his hard-won victory.

His first para race was in May at Nottwill, Switzerland. Kashafali set a world record of 10.58 seconds. He lowered that to 10.45 seconds at the Bislett Games on June 13. A 10.44 seconds at Lillehammer a week later was not eligible for a world record, as was the 10.37 seconds at the Norwegian championships because of a strong wind. He was selected for the Norwegian team in the European Athletics Team Championships First League, becoming only the second visually impaired athlete to qualify to compete in a major international competition with non-disabled athletes. Marla Runyan raced in the 1,500 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Kashafali in an Aug. 21 article at European-athletics.org. “I haven’t been in para athletics long, so I am still learning about what other para athletes have done.”

“People have been tremendous about me moving to para athletics. I’ve had a lot of support. To go from regular 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. Some people thought I was faking. They didn’t believe me at first. But most people have been very good and supportive to me. They know me now. I can be normal with people, with my fellow paras.”

His focus will be the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, where he also hopes to run the 200 meters. 

Back at Norna-Salhus, they are proud of their favorite son and what his accomplishments mean to the club.

“We are very proud to have a world champion from Norna-Salus,” said General Manager Tom Geir Jensen to BT. “I am quite touched, because I have followed Salum for many years. Opportunities are opening now. The focus on para athletics is completely different. Sponsors have already started talking to us. Salum offers a lot of himself, is well-liked by children, and is a coach at the club himself. He came forward with his eye disease and shows others everything is possible.”

Kashafali, who teaches math to 13- and 14-year-old students at a Bergen school, is aware of being a role model.

“To me, it’s about having fun and doing the best I can,” he said in the European-athletic.org article. “I am enjoying running, really loving it. There are many people 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 get to do that, it doesn’t matter if I come in first or last place.”

This article originally appeared in the December 27, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.