BAQUBA, Iraq: When car bomb survivor Najlah Imad first took up table tennis, her relatives warned against it. But a decade later, the Iraqi teenager who lost three limbs is gunning for gold at the 2024 Paralympic Games.

“Table tennis was a turning point. Since I started playing, my life has changed,” the 19-year-old athlete told AFP.

Najlah was just three years old when a 2008 sticky bomb ripped into her father’s car — an ex-military — in the city of Baquba northeast of Baghdad.

In a split second, like tens of thousands of Iraqis, Najlah became a victim of bombs that have ripped through the conflict-scarred country for decades.

She lost most of her right leg, her left leg at the knee, and her right forearm.

Remarkably, she now recounts the life-altering incident with a sense of calm.

“Table tennis has improved my mental health,” she said from a dilapidated sports center in Baquba.

Najlah’s face lights up when she speaks of her sports journey. But her smile disappears when she stands on her prosthetics in front of the blue table, focused and ready to speedily hit the ball with utmost precision.

The young athlete, with black hair cut to the neck, discovered her love for the game at the age of 10 when a trainer visited her house looking to form a local Paralympic team.

Her family was initially hesitant and cautioned her, predicting that she would be exhausted and “wouldn’t achieve anything.”

But the warnings did not stop her.

“When I first started, I saw other people with disabilities playing sports despite losing limbs,” she said.

She admired their positive energy. “They were always smiling, which encouraged me.”

After six months of intensive training, Najlah played her first match in a local Baghdad tournament.

“I won,” exclaimed Najlah. “I was the surprise of the competition.”

A first triumph fueled her passion, and she became a fierce competitor. Over the years, Najlah has participated in 30 international tournaments, winning medals and trophies, which she proudly displays on a shelf in her modest home.

In 2021, she went to Tokyo for the Paralympic Games, and in 2023, she won a gold medal in the 2022 Asian Para Games in China.

A rising star, Iraq’s Paralympic committee provides Najlah with a modest monthly stipend and travel expenses to competitions when the budget allows it.

Najlah trains twice a week in Baquba and another two days in Baghdad with her father by her side. She also travels abroad to practice ahead of international competitions taking advantage of better sports facilities.

In March, she traveled to Qatar to prepare for the Paris Paralympics in August.

“I always aim for gold,” Najlah said.

Despite her success, she still trains at Baquba’s modestly equipped sports center where walls are adorned with posters of international table tennis players.

Eight players share four secondhand ping-pong tables in a squalid hall with broken windows in a country where decades of conflicts, neglect and endemic corruption have left the infrastructure in despair.

The center sourced the tables from a junkyard. “We had to repair them to use them,” lamented trainer Hossam Al-Bayati, who joined the national Paralympic coaches team in 2016.

Najlah “will represent Iraq” in the Paralympics, but the tables she trains on are flimsy,” said Bayati. “This is wrong.”

During a recent training session at the Baquba center, Najlah wrapped her right arm at the elbow with a black cloth to help pad her crutch as she carefully attached her prosthesis. Once standing, she gripped her racket with her left hand and smoothly struck a ball into play.

Initially concerned about his daughter’s choice, Najlah’s father was against her playing the sport. However, after witnessing her first triumph, he quickly realized the importance of standing by her and endorsing her passion.

“She resisted and she challenged herself and the world,” the proud father Imad Lafta said.

Najlah’s dedication and hard work have paid off.

“Whenever she walks through the streets, people recognize her and congratulate us. Some girls even ask to take photos with her,” the father said.

Despite her busy training schedule, Najlah remains an avid reader and is supposed to graduate from high school this year.

As Najlah sets her eyes on the gold medal in Paris, her father is confident she will excel.

“When she promises something, she delivers,” he said.

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