Wednesday October 6, 2021
By RADHIKA PANJWANI
Somalia-born Mohammed “Mohspeed” Ahmed channels inspiration, talent and focus to bring home an Olympic medal.
Mohammed Ahmed of Canada celebrates his win in the 10,000 metres as Pan Am Track and Field begins at CIBC Athletics Stadium at York University in Toronto. July 21, 2015. Steve Russell/Toronto Star
This summer, as Canadian athlete Mohammed (Moh) Ahmed, 30, ran the final lap of the men’s 5,000 metres at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021 due to the pandemic), Canadians, including his family, friends and coaches in his hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario, were rooting for him.
There was a roar of cheers all around, in St. Catharines and across the country, as Ahmed crossed the finish line to deliver Canada’s first Olympic medal in the men’s 5,000 metres.
The three-time Canadian Olympian, nicknamed “Mohspeed”, ran an impressive 12 minutes 58.61 seconds to win the silver medal, just a few microseconds behind Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei who took the gold at 12 minutes 58.15 seconds.
The Somali-Canadian is proud to represent St. Catharines and Canada. “It feels really good to wear the Canadian colours,” says Ahmed. “Growing up I always felt I could do anything in this country to realize my potential. My hometown (St. Catharines) has been with me always.”
The Ahmed family’s passage from the war-torn Somalia via Kenya to Canada, and Moh’s own journey to the Olympic podium, are heartwarming stories of an immigrant family’s slow climb from scarcity and sacrifices to a life of stability and success through faith and hard work.
Ahmed and his two brothers arrived in Canada with their mother Helimo Farah, in 2001 and settled down in St. Catharines, Ontario. Their father stayed back. It would be eight years before the family could reunite.
Farah worked multiple jobs to support the family. Ahmed says he learned about hard work, perseverance and purpose from watching his mother.
Ahmed ran a 14:56 5K in Grade 10 while at St. Catharines Collegiate/ PHOTO CREDIT: Running Magazine
When he joined the local elementary school, he couldn’t speak a word of English. And he did not have any formal education. Ahmed overcame his setbacks with single-minded focus. However, when it came to sports, his lack of language skills did not matter. After elementary and middle school, Ahmed headed to St. Catharines Collegiate.
“I channeled that immigrant energy and all the natural anxiety in a positive way, and it helped me to become the best,” Ahmed says of his success as an athlete. I also wanted to set a good example for my brothers, so I always worked hard, whether it was at school or on the track… I gave it my best. That’s something I learned from my mom,” he says.
Finding his stride
It was during grade 8 that Ahmed found his stride. At 16, Ahmed was crowned the reigning Ontario high school cross-country champion.
“In 2008, I finished my world junior championship in track and that really opened doors for me,” the St. Catharines Collegiate alumni says, adding that a month later, he accompanied the Canadian team to the Beijing, China 2008 Summer Olympics, but not as a participant. “I do remember thinking to myself, ‘you’re making it to the next Olympic team.’”
When he returned home, he poured his focus into his training. And just as he had imagined, four years later, 21-year-old Ahmed made his Olympic debut in London. He finished 18th in the 10,000 metres. A year later at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, the Canadian athlete finished ninth. It was the best-ever by a Canadian.
Mohammed Ahmed was part of a logjam of Canadian medallists in the mixed zone after his victory in the 10,000 metres Tuesday. - Steve Russell / Toronto Star
“When you think about it, it all starts with that inspiration,” Ahmed says. “And if you have the talent and the coaches to help, you never know what you can do.”
The wins continued for Ahmed. He won the 10,000-metre gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto; then in 2018, a pair of silvers at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, in the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres.
As he trained for the 2020 Olympics, Ahmed’s sole focus was to better himself and not beat himself up over the disappointments. “Every year, I wanted to be a little better,” he says. “I have been running since I was 13. Now that I have achieved the medal, I am honoured, but I will not rest on my laurels.”
Ahmed says that success has not changed him. But now, when he’s walking down St. Catharines, people call out: “You’re the Olympic medalist. I remember you! You would run past my house every day.”
A dedicated mindset
In high school, Ahmed met Alex Acs, his cross-country and track coach, mentor, guide and now a good friend.
Acs recalls how Ahmed — who was, at that time, obsessed with basketball — initially showed up for races wearing high-top sneakers, baggy pants and a basketball jersey. But even in shoes that were not designed for distance running, Ahmed was a standout.
So, Acs bought Ahmed new running shoes and a pair of socks in the school (St. Catharines Collegiate) colours of gold, red and black. Those pair of socks are Ahmed’s lucky talisman. He carries them with him to all his races, Acs says.
Canadian distance runner Mohammed Ahmed competes in the first round of heats in the Men's 5000m during the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. (Stephen Hosier/HO/COC/CP)
Acs recalls that at the beginning of the year, some half-a-dozen students signed up to be part of the school’s track team, but as days went by, they kept dropping like flies. A puzzled Ahmed wanted to know why. Acs told him when athletes train hard, they’ll feel the pain and many can’t take that.
“He had a dedicated mindset and always showed up for practice,” Acs says. “He told me the pain was reminder that he had worked hard.” So, when Ahmed ran long-distance races in school, at 600 metres, Acs would be on the sidelines of the track, yelling, “Feel the pain, make the move.”
Ahmed’s bio on Team Canada, the official Olympic website, lists his favourite quote—handed to him by his grandmother—as “Tagto daayo tamido ogoow” meaning “Abandon that which has departed (yesterday/past) and rather ponder on that which is yet to come (tomorrow/future).”
That’s why the three-time Olympian is already looking ahead and focused on smashing a record or two at the World Athletics Championship in Eugene, Oregon, in 2022, and after three more years of intense training, he says, he will be ready for the Olympics, again.