M ohammed Ahmed made history for Canada at the 2020 Summer Olympics, bringing home a silver medal in the 5,000-metre, and, like me, he’s a part of a Somali-Canadian community that doesn’t tend to get much coverage during Black History Month. Hoping to do something about that, I reached out to him for an interview and had the pleasure of speaking with him on New Year’s Day via Zoom from Portland, where he’s currently training. Even through the screen, his personality shone. He was prone to making big gestures to emphasize his points, his smile was a constant and he spoke with an obvious passion for sport, which has been a vital presence in his life from his boyhood playing soccer in Eastleigh, Nairobi to the Olympic podium and beyond. Over the course of our two-hour conversation (edited here for length and clarity), we spoke about his childhood, career, faith and identity — and his mission to inspire future generations to take up running, and Somali kids, in particular, to pursue their passions.
KADIJA OSMAN: What do you remember about your life in Somalia?
MOHAMMED AHMED: I actually grew up in Kenya. [I was] born in Somalia, and then soon after, during the Civil War, my family left and settled in Kenya. So to 10 years old, I was in Nairobi. Right before I turned 11 years old, I moved to Canada in 2001.
I mean, you know, Africa’s Africa, right? I feel like the life that I had in Kenya compared to the life that I probably would have had if I was in Somalia would be the same to a certain extent. Obviously, Nairobi is a bigger city [than Mogadishu], but I grew up in Eastleigh, [a neighbourhood in Nairobi that is] essentially a Somali town. It was actually just kind of funny: I didn’t even need to learn Swahili. Somalis ran the whole friggin’ thing. [Laughs.] So yeah, I don’t know, just growing up in that very Somali childhood early on is pretty cool.
Do you have a favourite memory of your time there?
I think just playing every day, like playing soccer, being active and going to dugsi [schools that teach kids to read and understand the Quran]. Those are memories I actually remember. Waking up early in the morning, like 6 a.m., not even having breakfast, and just going to school. Two hours into dugsi I remember getting a little recess and going home to eat breakfast and it was just kind of the way.
It’s very funny because here in Canada it’s like, “What? You didn’t have breakfast yet?! It’s the most important meal of the day!” Nah, that’s not it. Part of the learning experience was pushing through without anything in your body. I remember my teacher expecting his students to be in every single prayer in the masjid. You know, it was very regimented but there was time for play. And I think just playing with my friends was probably the best part.
And then when you were 11, your family relocated to St. Catharines, Ont. I’m assuming there was some culture shock. How did you navigate that?
Sports, again, sports! [Laughs.] There were a lot of barriers that I had to overcome, right? Schooling looked different in Kenya. The only school that I did was Quran school, so I wasn’t doing math, science or any of that. Going into a more formal school at 11 years old was very difficult. And the only way that I could survive that was to throw myself in there, right? Learning the language was another barrier. I think what kind of eased the tension from the uncomfortableness of being in Canada, in this very foreign environment, was you gotta find play right? Play, fun and laughter and sports were that for me.
Growing up with three brothers, my mom was like, “You are not going to be in the house fighting and bickering with each other. So you better take all that energy, all that testosterone, and play outside.” If you were to ask me, “How would you define your childhood up to university?” I would say, “Play.” Aside from being in school and doing my lessons, I would play every single day, every single minute of being awake. I think sports was how I overcame that aspect of fitting in and socializing and kind of becoming one with the society that I lived in.
How did you start running?
Being a very active person, you become aware of different types of sports. I absolutely gravitated towards basketball, hockey and football because those were the predominant sports that were visible on TV. I watched and kept up with that and had individuals that I admired. At home, every single sport, whether it was baseball or equestrian competitions, we would watch because it was a sport and I was enamoured with it.
From 2001 to 2004, every single Saturday, I would watch track and field on TV and then [during the] 2004 Olympics I remember absorbing the entirety of those Games — from track and field to kayaking to everything — and I was so inspired by that. I tried to do as many of these sports as possible. So every time I watched the 1,500 metres or 5,000 metres or 10,000 metres, I would be running around my basement or having racing competitions with my brothers in the park. Those are probably the early introductions of track and field.
I would also go for those teams in school even though I wasn’t particularly good at those events because I still had a lot of maturing to do. I would always make the cross-country and track teams. I’d place top three in my school and I would be in the middle of the pack when I had to compete against kids in other schools in my area. I went for those teams because I just loved any excuse to skip school.
Honestly, Grade 9 was the first time that I displayed any sort of ability and skill in running. It could have been finally growing up, my body is stretching out a bit more, testosterone is kicking in, but I just kept getting better and better and better. And I went from top five in my region, barely making it to OFSAA [Ontario’s provincial high-school championships], to winning OFSAA in two years and making the Canadian team, competing at the World Championships, finishing top 10 and getting scholarships and all this stuff. I don’t know, it just happened so fast.
You actually achieved that dream you wrote down as a kid in Grade 8, making your Olympic debut at the 2012 Games in London? What was the process of qualifying like?
I watched the 2004 Olympics, and got into the sport within the next two to three years, competing internationally and representing Canada. And then in 2008, I watched the [Beijing] Olympics — Usain Bolt’s Olympics, Michael Phelps’ Olympics. I remember watching those games and saying, “Shit, four years’ time, I’m gonna be there.”
I made that promise to myself and I kept it. I entered my last year of high school in Fall 2008. Even during the process of narrowing down where I was going to go to university, the question I was asking all these coaches was, “What are your thoughts on me competing at the 2012 Olympics? Because I made a promise to myself and I’m gonna be there.” Coaches that were like, “Ah, you know, slow down. Blah, blah, blah.” I was like, “Nah. You are disqualified.”
I just felt like that promise that I made to myself when I was 17 years old, I wanted to live up to that. It was difficult. I trained my ass off but I made it. I made the 2012 Olympics and I was like “You gotta be freaking kidding me!” because it was really, really, really tough.
Making the 2012 Olympics at 21 years old set up the rest of my career really well. Because at 21 years old, you get the spectacle and the aura of the Olympics and the name that it carries. When I fulfilled that it’s like, “Okay, it’s just another competition. Now you have an Olympian title to your name? Okay, cool, big deal.” Now it’s about, how well can I do? Can I get medals? Can I break records? Can I reach the all-time list?
Set the scene and tell me about the first time you step into an Olympic arena, and you’re like, “Wow, I’m here. I did it.”
[It was] 2012. 10,000 metres. It was the only event that I was in. And you know, it’s Mo Farah’s Games, right? Like, he dominated those. Growing up and getting into the sport, Mo Farah is someone that I definitely looked up to. Mo Farah was someone that looked like me, had the same name as me, same origins, had the same body type, all that. I remember cheering for him so hard. I was one of his biggest fans, to be honest.
During the Olympics, I remember doing my warm-up on the track before going into the call room. And it’s all these different countries in one room and I’m like, “Oh, shit! These are the guys that I watched on TV and they’re right there.” I remember being so nervous and the pressure of being in that call room and seeing the tension, the anxiety spilling from everyone’s body. Before the competition, we were walking from the first call room towards the stadium to this tunnel holding area and you could just hear the roar from the crowd. I was like, “Holy shit.” The walk from the first call room to right before we got on the track, I pretty much felt exhausted with how nervous I was. I was so intimidated; just hearing the roar was ridiculous. I look over and I see Mo Farah looking so confident, like he was enjoying the whole moment.
I did that race and I literally could not hear the gun go off. I couldn’t even hear my own breathing, it was that loud. Eighty thousand people. It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. Eighty thousand people screaming for Mo Farah and he ended up winning. I finished 18th or something like that but it was a great experience because I learned how to channel my emotions, how to prepare myself. Things that I saw Mo Farah doing, like exuding confidence, his bravado, those are things that you really have to develop.
It was an amazing experience, honestly. I was able to enjoy it as a participant and also enjoy it as just a viewer as well because I competed really early in the games. I got to be in London which is a beautiful city and I have a huge family there so I really got to take in the Olympics.
Those Games seem like such a big turning point in your life. Is there anything that you learned in London that you still carry with you today?
I learned that it’s just another race. Growing up, I remember OFSAA was like the Olympics. It was the be-all and end-all — if you win, it’s a big freaking deal. And then going to the NCAA was even more so a big deal. I kind of realized then that it’s just another race. Yes it’s on a bigger scale and the whole entire world is looking at you and there are expectations from people, from yourself, but at the end of the day, it’s just a competition. It’s essentially the same as a twilight meet during the summer in Ontario, right? So don’t put too much pressure on it. Just freaking enjoy it and try and see if you can live up to your own expectations and your goals.
I can imagine that you are a very busy man. How do you balance your profession and your faith as a Muslim?
I don’t know. Being a runner is something that I do. Right? A Muslim is what I am. A Canadian is what I am. A Somali is what I am. There are things that you are, and you have to come to terms with it. When you’re young, it’s difficult because sometimes people see you as weird because you are so different. I embrace running as a Muslim Somali-Canadian Black man, and I live the best that I can because it’s just part of who I am.
Speaking of identity, what’s it like representing your country in these major competitions as a Somali Canadian?
Representing Canada is amazing. Like I said, Mo Farah, right? He is a British Somali and I always say, “Representation equals inspiration.” I can’t choose who sees me as an example. Who is motivated or inspired by what I do — I can’t choose that. All I can choose is to get out the door, train, create goals, and do the best that I can. And whoever gets inspired by that, great. I do realize that people who look like me — young Somalis across Canada, across the world — they’re hopefully gonna see inspiration in that and representing them is great. At the end of the day, I’m representing myself and the goals that I have, but getting to shed some positive light on the Somali community is fantastic. I want to inspire the next Somali Canadian out there, and I feel like I have. There are many young kids out there that are picking up the sport, which is great. It’s great to see that and it feels great.
Canada has provided me with an incredible opportunity. The decision to come to Canada was made by my parents but I took that opportunity that my parents gave me and I ran with it. There’s been many people in Ontario, in St. Catharines, that have contributed to my accomplishments and there’s deep gratitude in that. I’m representing them as well.
Have you ever been stereotyped for being Somali?
Oh yeah, so many times, being a person of colour and living a hyphenated life like “Somali-Canadian.” And the best way that I tried to navigate that is by understanding it, by conceptualizing it and by coming to terms with it. There were so many hurdles as a POC from age 11 in 2001, when I first came to Canada, to 22 years old, where I was in university. Those years were fickle and difficult times being Somali and Muslim travelling the world. Here I am representing Canada headed towards all these championships, proud that I made a Canadian team, but the things that I have to deal with crossing borders and getting on flights is ridiculous. It was insane. I’m telling you, it was insane.
The name Mohammed Ahmed — I could literally be any race, any colour, the name strikes fear into some people’s hearts. I was always sent to extra screening rooms, especially in the United States, and even to this day I have to go to the airport two to three hours early. I’ve been yanked out of my car crossing the border. I kid you not. The number of stories that I have about missed flights, missed competition, because I was sent to the extra screening room, it’s crazy. When I was younger, obviously it was frustrating and upsetting, [but] you can let it drive you crazy or you can create coping mechanisms.
As for my trauma that the post-9/11 era has created for me or for Somalis and Muslims, it’s minuscule. It’s only been 20 years of that, but African-Americans have been going through this for 400, 500 years. I try to put it in perspective and try to understand what I’m going up against because how do you deal with a system created in our society that people of colour have to overcome? You have to educate yourself, equip yourself with the necessary tools and also educate other people. I can try and fight and argue and be upset about and throw a hissy fit but I can also try to be useful and deal with the situation in a proper manner and be part of that wave of change. And that’s what I’m trying to be.
I feel like one thing about Somalis is that we can eat the same two dishes and be content. Do you incorporate Somali cuisine into your training diet?
When it comes to Somali food, there definitely isn’t a lot of variety, right? Like, it’s a lot of the same: bariis [rice], baasto [pasta], bariis, baasto. [Laughs.] But in my training, I try to go for consistency and moderation. I realized that if I have the same thing every single day, I’m missing out in a lot of different calories and nutrients that I need to do my job. So yeah, I definitely have Somali food, but I try to eat a lot of different food. I used to be so picky when I was young and when I moved out from home for university, I was like, “Man, where can I get bariis? Where can I get baasto?”
When I go back home during the off-season, all I eat is Somali food, that’s it. At the end of the season I am pretty skinny, at the prime of my shape, and my mom just feeds me. She will make everything and anything and I’m like, “Mom, I just ate like 30 minutes ago. I can’t eat this too!” [Laughs.]
The leadup to Tokyo 2020 was unusual, to say the least. What was your preparation like amid all that upheaval?
The World Championships in 2019 were sort of a high for me, right? I was fourth [in the 5,000-m.] at the 2016 Olympics and sixth at the 2017 World Championships. 2018 was an off year and, to be honest, wasn’t all that great. So, 2019 World Champs was a make-or-break kind of thing because I was ranking like eighth, sixth, fourth, but I wanted a medal. It was almost like I’m knocking on this door and it’s just not happening and I’m like, “What am I doing wrong?” All of it just came together finally. I’m knocking on this door and I opened it to the first medal of my career internationally [world championship bronze in the 5,000-m.], and it was huge. It was a big year and I had this huge momentum and adrenaline heading into the 2020 games. I’m like, “Okay, here it is, a silver or gold medal.” I was so ready. I was fit, I was motivated, I was excited, I was loose and I felt like everything was going the right direction.
And then in March, the pandemic happens. The Olympics are postponed and you are literally sitting in your apartment just watching the news and gathering information on this coronavirus. [Laughs.]
What you try to do is adapt, right? So what can we do? Get fit. You have another 14 to 15 months to the Olympics, so you just try to take it as an opportunity to get better. I did some of the hardest training in my life in 2020 during lockdown because of just a tremendous amount of sadness, immense amount of frustration, confusion, and all that stuff. Training was a way that I coped with everything, the abnormality of society and living arrangements. I could always go on a track somewhere and do a workout. The first two months of the pandemic, I sort of created a routine for myself and I just did an incredible amount of training. I took all my frustration and whatever I was feeling and channeled it into my training and using it as a way of getting better for my next meet in three or four months’ time.
I was hoping there might be some races available that I can try and obtain some personal goals and some PBs. I was able to break the North American record in 5,000 metres and run, at the time, what was like the 10th fastest 5,000-metre time. I was like, “Okay, that’s good. That means you’re top-10 PB, like, of all the humans that have lived! That’s great going into next year.” It was proof that I could actually medal. [Editor’s note: Ahmed’s 12:47.20 is now 11th fastest all-time.]
2021 was a lot of uncertainty, but the one thing that I could do and be in control of is how I trained and how I approach every single day. I was trying to convince myself, “It’s gonna happen, man. It’s gonna happen. It might not be the Olympics that you saw in London or in Rio but it’s still the Olympics. They’re still valid and there are still medals on the line, and you’re in a great position to grab yourself one or two.”
I would say it was marred by a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, which I actually didn’t even realize in the moment. It wasn’t until after the Olympics that I felt everything that I went through, the 15, 16 months that I was training and waiting for these Olympics. I was pretty exhausted after those Games.
You’re the first person in Canadian history to win an Olympic medal in the 5,000-metre. How does it feel to hear that?
I’m like, “Really?” [Laughs.]
Representing Canada through the years was a bit weird because I was always the first of something, especially competing in the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres. I remember the 2013 World Championships, I was ninth and it was like the highest position finished by a Canadian ever. I’m like, “What? No way!” So for me, I don’t know, it didn’t really give me a whole lot of like excitement or anything like that. I had the highest finish two years ago, you know? [Laughs.]
If there’s one thing that I definitely took personally, it was always trying to put Canadian distance running on the map. Representing Canada at those World Junior Championships from a very young age gave me a lot of pride and excitement. It was amazing. Yes, I’m Somali and all that, right? At the end of the day, I started running in Canada. I was given many opportunities to develop and to foster the skills that I have and it was all for Canada. And you know, there are a lot of people that I owe a lot to, that gave me all this opportunity.
I felt like from 2013 onwards, that was kind of my mission: to make Canadian PBs and break some Canadian records. When I became a professional, I wanted to be the best that I can be and to inspire kids and make them work hard. If I can make the Canadian record, another kid’s gonna come by in 10, 20 years and say, “Shit, a Canadian did that? Alright, let me reach for that” and they may or may not surpass that but I feel like they can get a higher medal than I did. It’s been a mission of mine to make Canadian running more competitive but also respected, and I have seen it happen. For example, Justyn Knight is a young guy from Toronto, Ont. and comes from a Jamaican background. I hope that I made it easier for him to travel through that door.
Take me back to the final moments before crossing that line and winning 5,000-M. silver. What was going through your head?
When the race started, I had this whole plan going into it and within the first two laps, that plan was thrown out the window. I just had to freelance it, go with the motions, run smart and see where I can make an impact and try to put myself in a good position. The fact that it was a fast race helped me calm down a bit because I knew that I was very fit and the faster the race, the better my chances were. I knew the path was going to clear a little bit and it was going to create space for me to operate in.
The last three or four laps were an absolute blur, like I don’t remember too many things. I remember that I was sixth, seventh nearly the entire race, and seeing all those bodies ahead of me. I kept reminding myself with the little cues I had. You can tell yourself “Stay tall” and if you think about that you will stay tall. The night before a race, I always write down what I want to get out of it and how I’m going to be able to do that. Throughout the course of the day, every time I feel anxious and nervous, I look back on that. And I usually use quick phrases, like, “Ball out, be tough, stay flowy,” etc.
I would say the last three laps, my words were “Not again” — like I am not going to be fourth or outside of the podium. That was my deep motivation. I think of all the failures, especially in 2016 with how emotional and distraught I was after the race. I have carried that feeling with me for five years. Everywhere I went, it’s like, “Here’s Mohammed Ahmed, who was fourth in Rio.” Okay, but I mean that’s not what I’m going to introduce myself as. [Laughs.] You carry that and it’s a lot of weight to deal with.
Around the 150- or 200-metre mark, I was so upset at myself. I remember seeing Joshua Cheptegei pushing the pace and being in control. I was boxed in. Seeing the amount of traffic that was ahead of me, around me, to get up near Joshua for the gold medal, I was like, “Man, you did everything you could. You’re fourth. There’s nothing you could do.” [But] that ‘not again’ feeling kicked in because I did not want to leave the stadium, go back into society, back into Canada and have to live with being a two-time fourth place at the Olympics. I’m not doing that.
But to be honest, there wasn’t a whole lot of emotion as I was crossing the finish line. That was for two reasons: One, I was like, “Ah, you had some energy left and you let him get away for the win.” I wished I was close enough, like right on his shoulder going into that last 100 metres, but Joshua Cheptegei is a world record holder. Secondly, I think it was just relief. Crossing that finish line was a big relief from all the weight I had to carry for the last five years, and [especially] the 16 months that were spent in the pandemic and that whole uncertainty.
My PT [physical therapist] that I worked with, she dedicated a lot of time to getting me better, helping me understand my body, the weaknesses, the different types of patterns that I have in my body and how to work it, how to correct it, and how to refine that. She was one of the first people that I saw [in the stadium] and she was in tears. That’s when I kind of snapped out of it and was like, “Oh, shit, this is a big deal. Be proud of yourself. Be happy with the medal, and you get to fly the flag and that’s huge.”
And I will say that specific day was definitely a proud Canadian Heritage moment. It’s not just because of me. Early that morning, I wake up and Evan Dunfee won bronze for race walking. That was like music to my ears because five years ago in Rio, he was fourth in race walking, and at the 2019 World Championships, he was third. We were sort of matching and it was a good sign and a great energy to feel. Then I knew the women’s soccer team had already secured a medal pretty much and they were playing for the gold medal. I was like, “Listen, I am not going to be left behind today.” I wanted to be part of that moment. I knew it was a big day and I wanted to be part of that. And the men’s relay [4×100-m.] also got a medal. So all that within one day for Canada. Huge, huge day and to be part of that was a big deal.
Did you receive any feedback or reaction from the Somali community when you came back?
Oh yeah, so many Somalis, big time! Mo Farah was tweeting and messaging me. I was getting Somali love from all over the place across Canada, across Somalia and all the different Somali lands. Honestly, it was a big day.