DUBAI: On his surfboard, waiting for the next wave.
Mohammad Hassan is never happier than when he is alone in the water.
The story of the Emirati’s attempt to be the only Arab surfer at the Tokyo Olympics would be inspiring at the best of times. But as it happens, Hassan also had to overcome a debilitating and life-threatening disease to follow his dream.
The baggage, in his case, is quite literal.
In August 2020, the 33-year-old had his colon removed, and the professional surfer now passes solid waste through a stoma in his abdomen that connects to a waterproof pouch called an ostomy bag.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, would I be able to live a normal life,” he said of his post-surgery state of mind.
“Would I be able to do my sports? All these things kicked in, and also looking at surgery itself, because I had to have a stoma, the first thing that came up was, would I be able to lay down on my board? Especially as I was trying to qualify for the Olympics.”
A naturally positive person, Hassan was nonetheless racked with concerns.
Will I be able to compete? Will I be able to do all the things I did before?
“Having the stoma was very difficult,” he said. “In my mind it was very difficult to lay down on my board, that was the main concern.”
Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis 15-years-ago meant that Hassan, a talented football and rugby player, could barely function in his everyday life, never mind in competitive sports.
Leaving the pitch every few minutes for bathroom break soon ended his team sports aspirations.
After moving to Australia, the Emirati increasingly found solace in surfing.
“Watersports were the perfect scenario,” he said. “I could sit in the water, enjoy my time.”
“[At first] I never knew what surfing was,” he said.
“So when I got injured playing rugby, through rehabilitation in the water I saw people surf and that’s how I got into it. I really enjoy the water. Water was my escape from everything. Every time I would go in the water, I’d feel at ease, I’d feel really good, I’d forget everything that happened during the day. And when I found sport I could do in the water, that was it, I clicked with it.”
He would carry his love of surfing with him to the US and eventually back home to the UAE.
“Sports come naturally to me, but I picked up surfing super well,” said Hassan, who was encouraged to pick the sport by his Australian friends.
“From the first time I caught the first wave, it felt good, it felt comfortable. I think I picked up really quick. I was born a surfer.”
But over the years medication could not improve Hassan’s illness, and he returned to the UAE two years ago.
During a routine follow-up for a patient with ulcerative colitis, a colonoscopy revealed pre-cancerous cells in Hassan’s colon. What was a daily inconvenience became life-threatening.
A team of surgeons and pathologists at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi advised a total colectomy – the removal of the colon.
Successful surgery meant saving his life by eliminating cancer, and effectively curing his colitis, eliminating his symptoms.
Hassan would have to carry the bag with him, but he had his life back.
That he was soon back on his surfboard and dreaming of Olympic glory is testament to his willpower as much as it is to the team of doctors.
“In the past we used to do surgeries like this the traditional way,” said Dr. Shafik Sidani, the colorectal surgeon who performed the surgery at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
“Which is open [surgery], big incision down the abdomen and basically the patients stay for many days if not weeks in the hospital. They don’t eat and drink for a while and when they recover, it’s slow recovery.”
Modern advances mean such operations are now carried out with small keyhole incisions, ensuring less pain and quicker recovery time for the patients.
A procedure called Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) played a big role in Hassan’s return to a normal life.
“It’s basically a pathway in patient care that starts the moment the patient walks through the door with a diagnosis,” Sidani added.
“We prepare the patient for surgery physically, mentally and we set expectations, we educate the patient. We involve the patient in the care and the decision of the treatment.”
“Mo added another element to all this in that the stars aligned with him and with our pathway, with his motivations, his expectations and what he wanted out of this,” the doctor added.
“So he took it to another level, really pushed himself to recover quicker. He didn’t play the sick role for as long, he tried to move on.”
Now Hassan is taking the steps back into professional surfing and looking to emulate some of his heroes
“My favorites are ‘John John’ Florence and Julian Wilson,” he said.
“I really enjoyed the way they surf, I enjoyed their creativity on the water, and I really like their Air Game, so they were my go-to surfers. I surfed with John John so that was dream come true.”
Pursuing the biggest dream of all, surfing in the Olympics, did not happen overnight. The World Cup of surfing came first.
“My coach Matt told me, ‘why don’t you compete for the UAE? I don’t think anyone has competed from the Gulf countries.’ Give it a go, I’m going to teach you, I’m going to help you out and we’ll see how it goes’. I agreed,” Hassan recalls of a conversation in 2018.
Qualification to the World Surfing Games followed, where he was the only surfer form the Middle East.
Then came the World Qualification Series (WQS) for the World Surf League. A few wins got him “excited”.
And when surfing was announced as an Olympic sport for the Tokyo Games, his path was set.
The operation to have the Stoma changed his life for the better and kept the dream alive, and now he is faced with option of having another operation which would do away with the bag.
It’s a decision he is pondering as he is happy with the quality of life he is currently enjoying, as proven by his participation in the Dubai Fitness Challenge 2020, playing 30 different sports in 30 days.
The Final Olympic Surfing Qualifier in El Salvador at the end of May will determine his fate.
Hassan admits to being a bit rusty after the operation, and Covid-19 restrictions have not helped his training program.
But it will all be worth it if he makes it to Japan wearing his country’s colors.
And what would it mean to represent the UAE at the Olympics?
“Everything,” Hassan said. “The UAE has given me so much, and I think this is the time for me to pay it back.”