An Indonesian motorbike racer lost his leg in a crash. Now he is gunning for Paralympic glory

(ni) Imammuddin 08

JAKARTA: It was supposed to be a glorious day for Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin.

The motorcycle racer, who was then 30 years old, was the first to cross the finish line at the Indonesian leg of the Asia Road Racing Championship (ARRC) on Jun 7, 2015.

Indonesian para-cycling athlete Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin training for the Paralympics. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

He had been dreaming of winning a race in front of a home crowd for weeks. The win also put him on top of the leaderboard and he had a shot of becoming Indonesia’s first ARRC Supersports 600cc class champion.

Imammuddin was ecstatic. But just as he was celebrating his win and began to wave back at the cheering crowd, another racer rammed him from behind at full speed.

The crash was so violent that Imammuddin was hospitalised for the next four months. But the real blow came when doctors told him that his lower left leg was so badly injured it had to be amputated.

“I was terrified. I worried about my future. My wife was pregnant with my first son. I thought, ‘How am I supposed to provide for my family?’” he told CNA.

LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY

Imammuddin, now 36, said even after his leg was amputated he was determined to get back on the motorcycle. He had been racing professionally since he was 17. “Motorcycle racing was all I know,” he said.   

But there were times when he doubted himself and thought that his racing days were over. “I was bed-ridden for a very long time. I was in such bad shape I couldn’t sit upright for more than a few minutes,” he said.

Indonesian para-cycling athlete Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

It was the birth of his son, just a few weeks after his crash, which gave him a much-needed motivation.  

“I told myself, ‘I have a son now and I have to get back on my feet. I have extra responsibility. I cannot slouch around. I cannot give up,’” he said. “I made a promise to myself that I had to walk before my son could walk. It became a competition for me.”

But the road to recovery proved to be long and arduous.

“I set a target for myself. I have to take more steps in every rehabilitation training that I did. In the beginning, just standing up with my new prosthetic leg was laborious and I felt like I was going to pass out. But soon I was taking one step, then two, then three,” he said.

Imammuddin succeeded in his earlier goal of being able to walk before his newborn son could, but it would take him a few more months before he was finally comfortable to get back on his motorcycle.

Indonesian para-cyclist Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin fastening his prosthetic leg before a training session in the suburbs of Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“I had my motorbike modified so I could shift gears with my right feet. But I was still out of shape. Before the crash I could do 20 laps non-stop and this time I could barely do five,” he said.

He needed a way to get back into shape. “That’s how I started cycling,” Imammuddin said.

FATE INTERVENED

Imammuddin said a man approached him in late 2016 as he was hanging out at a cafe in the hilly suburbs of Jakarta frequented by professional and amateur cyclists.

The man told him: “You know, even able-bodied people would find it hard to cycle in these hills. But you can do it with ease despite your disability.” 

The man introduced himself as Raja Sapta Oktohari, a wealthy businessman who would later be the chairman of the Indonesia Asian Para Games Organizing Committee. “He asked if I would be interested in participating in the Para Games,” Imammuddin said.

Indonesian para-cycling athlete Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin pedalling up a steep hill during a training session in the suburbs of Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

The Para Games would be held in Jakarta in 2018, right after the Asian Games, and Indonesia in 2016 did not have a para-cycling athlete.

“(Oktohari) said that he needed someone to compete in the para-cycling events and that I would be a good fit,” Imammuddin said.

“I never dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist. At the time, I only cycled to get myself in shape so I could be a motorcycle racer again.”

Nevertheless, Imammuddin told Oktohari that he was interested. But it would take another chance meeting with Indonesia’s cycling legend Puspita Mustika Adya to seal the deal.

Mustika said in a 2018 interview with Indonesian media Viva News that he was there at the Sentul Circuit when Imammuddin’s accident occurred. “I even shook hands with Fadli (before the race). We all cheered when Fadli won the race but then I saw Fadli being rammed and thrown off his bike,” he said.

Indonesian para-cycling athlete Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin in one of his training sessions. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Mustika said he had heard about Imammuddin’s amputation from a friend. When he saw a Facebook video of Imammuddin cycling, just over a year after his crash, Mustika said he was shocked and became interested in meeting Imammuddin in person.

Imammuddin recalled the time when Mustika came to his house. “It was not long after I met (Oktohari). (Mustika) said he had seen a video of me cycling and praised me. He also asked if I was interested in becoming a para-cycling athlete,” he said.

The words of encouragement from a cycling legend and the confidence that he had shown was what convinced Imammuddin to pursue a different career and become Indonesia’s first para cycling-athlete.

BIGGER AMBITIONS    

Imammuddin and coach Mustika soon got to work and Imammuddin trained with able-bodied cycling professionals.

In March 2017, less than three months after they started training, Imammuddin participated in the Asian Road Cycling Championships in Manama, Bahrain.  

Imammuddin finished fourth in the C-4 individual time trial category. C-4 is a para-cycling classification for athletes who can compete with standard bicycles and have either one leg amputated below the knee or both arms amputated below the elbows.

In September that year, Imammuddin got his first taste of the podium as a para-cycling athlete when he won the bronze medal at the 2017 Asean Para Games in Malaysia.

A year later at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta, he won a gold, a silver and a bronze medal at three different track and road para-cycling events.

Indonesian Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin has scooped gold, silver and bronze at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta AFP/BAY ISMOYO

Imammuddin is now training for the Paralympics in Tokyo. The games were supposed to be held in August but because of the COVID-19 pandemic they have been pushed back to next year. 

On Monday (Aug 3), organisers of the Paralympics said the opening ceremony will take place on Aug 24 next year, with 539 events to be scheduled until the closing ceremony on Sep 5.  

While the postponement has given Imammuddin more time to prepare, the pandemic also meant that he had to train on his own.

“I still need to improve my speed and my performance, because my goal is to win a medal at the Paralympics,” he said, adding that he has a target of shaving off 10 seconds from his personal record of four minutes and 52 seconds on a 4,000m track.

“I must always practise. When the pandemic is over we might see a boom in sporting events. So I have to be ready. Before the Paralympics there would be many single events which are crucial for the qualification process. If I don’t participate I might not qualify (for the Paralympics).”

Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin (centre) practising with a number of amateur cyclists. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Imammuddin said since the pandemic began he has been training on his own six times a week. His training regime includes two endurance sessions, one involving a 22km climb up the hills and another a 120km tour of Jakarta. The other four sessions are spent on improving his speed.

“Even though my coaches still monitor my progress, it is different when you are in a boot camp situation. At a boot camp, you have coaches pushing you, people monitoring your diet, colleagues supporting you and cheering you on.

“You really focus on training. But if you train on your own, there are sometimes distractions. But I always remind myself of my target. That is what keeps me focused. That is what keeps me excited.”

Imammuddin said he is grateful for what had happened. In 2018, he even went to Thailand to meet the racer responsible for the crash. The two became friends and remained close to this day, Imammuddin said.

Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin switching to his walking prosthesis after a training session in the hilly suburbs of Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“When I lost my leg I initially thought my career as an athlete was over. I was feeling a bit angry. I was at the peak of my motor racing career. I had all my limbs. But they were taken away from me,” he said.

“But I have since made peace with my condition and now can even enjoy bigger opportunities. When I was in motor racing I only competed in Asian level. But through cycling I can participate in world events and the ultimate stage, the Paralympics, is within my grasp.”

Despite his achievements, Imammuddin said he still misses motorcycle racing sometimes. To compensate, Imammuddin started his own racing school in 2016 where he coaches aspiring racers. “So my passion for motorbikes still has an outlet,” he said.

Indonesian para-cycling athlete Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin taking a breather after a 25km training session in the hilly suburbs of Jakarta. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

But Imammuddin said he does not want to return to his former career as a professional motorcycle racer.

“Cycling is my life now. Besides, the risks in motor racing are too great. If I crash, not only will I risk injuring myself but also damage my prosthesis,” he said with a smile, pointing to his US$10,000 carbon fibre leg. “They are not cheap.”

By Nivell Rayda – CNA

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