"Everything happens for a reason," Emirati surfer Mohammad Hassan Rahma declares profoundly, a few minutes into our interview. He was responding to my question on coping with multiple setbacks in his life.
Earlier this year, Mohammad, 34, was training in full swing for the Tokyo Olympics, poised to be the first Emirati to qualify in the sport, when he injured his knee – a tear in the cartilage required surgery and washed down his Olympic plans. "It was hard at first. But I told myself, ‘Maybe, my body was not in its best form’. I did not want to go there to just show my face," says Mo, as he is popularly known.
In his own words, this is the fourth biggest curveball that life has thrown at him.
At the age of 20, his international football career, while playing for Dubai Football Club, came to an abrupt end when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease (a type of inflammatory bowel disorder) – a persistent symptom of which is frequent washroom trips (Mo remembers having to visit the washroom sometimes up to 20 times a day).
Then, a few years later, as he was scaling heights as a rugby player in the UAE national team, a ruptured ACL (knee ligament) and ulcerative colitis snipped his dreams midway. From rugby he found fame in surfing and became the first international Emirati surfer when yet again his plans took a big blow. In 2020, a colonoscopy revealed pre-cancerous cells and Mo had to undergo a total colectomy to remove the colon.
Yet none of this has dampened the sporting champion’s spirits. When football was taken away, he found joy in rugby; and when he had to drop out of rugby, he claimed his space under the sun, surfing the high waves.
Even after the colectomy, he found a way to roll with the waves, with a belt tied on his ileostomy bag (without the colon, he passes solid waste through a stoma in his abdomen connected to the bag). And now, he says, "I am very positive. I have set my eyes on the Paris Olympics and big wave surfing – riding on 65 to 70 feet high waves in the oceans of Ireland and Portugal."
But his optimism, admits Mo, was not always so buoyant.
His battle with Crohn’s disease and the loss of his football career at such a young age had plunged him deep into depression. "It was a super dark phase in my life. I did not speak to anyone or come out of my room for almost two months," he retells. "Eventually, I learnt to dance with my demons."
Listening to motivational videos, reading books, family support and meditation helped Mo to find the light in the darkness. "I went to many countries to meet doctors, to seek help for my condition. I am also fortunate to have a great circle of friends and family. But most of all, it was a two-week-long silent meditation session in India that helped me to go deep inside myself. That’s where I found my answers and learnt to look at the lighter side of life," he shares.
Each one of us, points out Mo, has to learn to push the boundaries and find ways that work best for us. "It’s not an easy process, you have to be willing to change, sadness sometimes becomes comfortable. I also had to choose to either be gloomy and sit at home, or go out there and explore life."
The saviour in Mo’s own life has been sports. A phone call from a friend, during his dark days, in his early twenties, steered the first turning point in his journey. "This was just after the collapse of my football career. A friend had called me to join a local rugby team he was assembling. As I went out to play every day, I noticed that my mood was really better. Unlike at home I was not crying on the field."
From a very young age, Mo found himself immersed in the world of sports. It started with professional football, where he earned his first pay cheque at the age of 12.
Time and again, his love for the outdoors and sports rescued Mo from life’s turmoil. Interestingly, during a rehab schedule while running in water, after his rugby injury, he discovered surfing.
"I learnt to surf quite by chance at Umm Suqeim Beach in Dubai and perfected techniques at the Wadi Adventure in Al Ain. I was also going through yet another low phase, following the end of my rugby career, when I found succour in surfing," shares Mo.
Conquering waves on his surfboard was a big de-stressor. The sportsman soon learnt that he was a real pro at surfing. Training under experienced coaches at global surfing hotspots led Mo to represent the UAE at the ISA World Surfing Games and earned him a nomination at the WSL (World Surf League) Big Wave Awards in 2017. "Surfing for me is like meditation. I feel calm and at peace, amidst the colours of the ocean and the waves."
In 2020, to inspire UAE residents to be more active, Mo tried 30 different sports in 30 days. "From jujitsu to fencing, kickboxing, underwater polo, hockey and wakeboarding, this year I have ticked off 42 sports on my list. I do all this to give hope to people suffering from chronic diseases. If I can do it, so can you."
With a day job in Abu Dhabi Ports, Mo wakes up at 4am on days he is training for competitions. Squeezing in a few hours in the morning and some in the evening, his fitness schedule involves strengthening in the pool, gymming, meditation and yoga. While his insta feed is a snapshot of his daily trials and triumphs, his uplifting thoughts and sporting experiences are chronicled through his podcast (defyingthenorm_podcast). "We are here to help each other, to learn from shared experiences. I want to tell people, they have to try different things. They might fail, but they will find out what works best for them like it did for me," he says.