Road to Rio: Taekwondo duo aspire to be multiculturalism role models


Australia's top taekwondo athletes are in training for the Rio Games, but for the close knit team heading to the global event, it's about more than martial arts.

For 29-year-old Safwan Khalil, who is currently in the midst of training for his second Olympics, the memory of London 2012 is still fresh in his mind.

"Before London, I walked in there thinking gold is my only objective," Khalil, who competes in the 58kg division, said.

"Once I lost the quarter finals, which meant I couldn't win a gold medal, I found it extremely difficult to bounce back." 

Khalil lost the bronze medal match at the London Games and returned to Australia with a bag full of lessons for the next Olympic qualification cycle.

"It wasn't until I saw those guys who won the bronze medal celebrate and do a lap of honour that I realised the value in it," he said.

"So I'm walking into Rio with a totally different perspective. I'm walking in wanting to be the best I can be. I know that if I am that person on the day, mentally and physically, then I'll be very hard to beat."

Hayder Shkara, 25, who's making his Olympic debut in Rio in the 80kg division, will be there by Khalil's side.

"I guess I'm the only one on the outside of the inner circle of family," Shkara said.

"But to be honest I never feel that way. Ali and Safwan, they're like brothers to me and I think I know Saf better than his wife knows him."

The Ali referred to by Shkara is Khalil's brother, the team's head coach.

The inner circle also consists of Khalil's fiancée Carmen and her sister Caroline.

It is definitely a family affair, and Khalil says he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Because when people like Hayder and Carmen, your partner, and your brother Ali are there telling you something, they're telling you something for your best interest," Khalil said.

"And you can never take in something they say as criticism that will drag you down. It's always to better yourself as an athlete."

But it's more than just Olympic dreams behind Khalil and Shkara's friendship.

Both have complicated family stories, and both have parents born abroad.

In Shkara's case his mother is Japanese and his father is Iraqi.

"I've always been a little bit different to everybody else so it's always been a struggle to fit in to have the same views as everybody else, even at home, just a culture clash between having a more eastern traditional family, living in a western culture," Shkara said.

"That was a constant struggle every day as well. So I was used to that struggle.

"I was used to fighting, and through that I think I developed those skills and that desire to actually look for a fight, look for a challenge."

Khalil's family came to Australia as refugees, fleeing violence in Lebanon 30 years ago.

"Being part of that culture where you've really got to strive for what you want, believe in what you want and get out there and get it, because my family, their culture, didn't have much opportunity at all," he said.

"So when they see that I do have an opportunity, they want me to strive for it 100 per cent."

Both fighters say they hope to be role models for all children, but especially for those from diverse backgrounds.

They say a win in Rio will be a win for multicultural Australia.

"That was actually one of my intentions, to make the Olympic Games," Shkara said.

"In order to show the Islamic community, to show the Arab community, show all the migrants that even if you come from a position where you're disadvantaged - you're not privileged, that you're still able to achieve through hard work."

They are both keeping the dream of Australia's first taekwondo Olympic medal since Sydney 2000 alive and kicking.

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