Not even an ACL tear can deter karate’s Olympic hopeful Abbasali

Even when karate was not on the Olympic programme, young Iranian karateka Hamideh Abbasali would tell anyone listening that one day she would triumph on the biggest sporting stage of them all. Now, with 12 extra months to recover from serious injury, she is ready to embrace her longed-for opportunity at Tokyo 2020. 

Picture by 2019 Getty Images

All Hamideh Abbasali’s sporting hopes and fears collided at the World Karate Federation (WKF) Karate1 Premier League event in Salzburg, Austria, in late-February this year.

The 30-year-old, who has fantasised about being an Olympian for as long as she can remember, won her second major title in five weeks to put herself on the brink of qualifying for a spot at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. But, in the process of defeating Italy’s Clio Ferracuti 2-1 in the 68+kg final, she immediately put that dream debut in doubt.

“The competition was really stressful and physical. I knew winning a gold medal would stabilise my place at Tokyo 2020,” said Abbasali, who endured the physical and mental agony of tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee en route to victory.

“Injury in professional sport is inevitable, but when the injury is close to the most important sporting event, it certainly puts a lot of pressure on an athlete psychologically, and I am no exception to this rule.”

The injury seemed particularly cruel considering how Hamideh had hauled herself back to the summit of women’s kumite. The Iranian has been a fixture on the international circuit for close to a decade, but her golden period seemed set in 2014-2016, when she secured +68kg World Championship silver and bronze and became Asian Games champion. As she moved into her late twenties, Abbasali’s form dipped, with a 12th-place finish at the 2018 World Championships suggesting her best days were behind her.

That was all, however, before the lure of an Olympic Games started to loom large.

“I have been focusing all my efforts and planning on the Olympics,” Abbasali admitted. “I have been planning much more seriously for the Karate1 [the results of which fed into the WKF’s Olympic ranking system]. I have always been trying to finish those competitions successfully so that the way to reach the Olympics was smoother for me.”

The approach worked. Hamideh roared back to the very top. Since the start of 2019, she has finished fifth twice, third three times and first twice in the 10 Karate1 Premier League events she has entered. It has made her the +68kg world No.1 but, perhaps more importantly, it elevated her to second in the standings of the WKF Tokyo 2020 +61kg – one of three Olympic weight categories in kumite for women.

Just as all this combined to deliver her ticket to Tokyo, her ACL snapped. Surgery in Germany followed swiftly and, although Abbasali now insists that she “never despaired” that she could get herself fit in time for Tokyo 2020, the doubts must have been there. It is why amid the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a chink of sporting light for the athlete.

“It was really good news for me,” Abbasali admitted of the 12-month enforced postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games.

“I was happy because this delay has given me more time to get better prepared for the Olympic Games, and it helped me a lot psychologically.”

The knee is already feeling good.

“About three months have passed since my knee surgery and I started rehabilitation exercises. I am in good condition,” she confirmed.

The ability to recover from setbacks is perhaps even more critical to great karateka than to other world-class athletes. It is no surprise therefore that Abbasali lists two weary warriors as her inspirations. Compatriot Jasem Vishgahi won the -75kg men’s World Championship gold back in 2006 and is still competing today, while Azerbaijan’s Rafael Aghayev has fought his way relentlessly to the very pinnacle of the sport. The five-time world champion is already widely considered to be the best of his generation and will have a chance to cement that reputation at Tokyo 2020, having secured his spot in Salzburg, like Abbasali.

If she manages to mirror her hero and write her name in karate folklore, Abbasali knows she will have one person to thank.

“The main hero of my life is my mother,” she said. “She was interested in her daughters being athletes. I enrolled with my sister in a club near our house. But my sister did not continue, and I, who was not interested in karate in the beginning, gradually became interested in the sport.”

It has proved a good match. Abbasali’s mentality is clearly ideally suited to the demands of kumite.

“My greatest strength as a karateka is having patience and hope until the last moment. I always try to do my best in all competitions,” she said.

“After a defeat I always get up and work harder for the next fight.”

It looks like it will, with a little luck, be enough to get her to where she has always wanted to go.

“Many years ago, whenever I was asked, ‘What is your biggest wish?’, I would say in response, ‘Winning the Olympics’ and most of the times I heard back that karate was not in the Olympics and that I could not achieve this dream… But I did not forget my dream. I have been waiting for it to come true for years.”