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#38: Olympic Dream

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Youcef Abdi’s story is inspirational and shows incredible resilience. He talks about his journey and the hurdles that he overcame to achieve his Olympic dream.

His journey starts in a small village in Algeria with one TV channel and a school 6kms from home at the bottom of a mountain.

At the age of 18 something went terribly wrong and Youcef had 24 hours to escape an Algerian military training camp in the desert – One day to make up his mind about where to spend the rest of his life, never giving up on his Olympic dream.


Stephanie: Hello, and welcome to TEC live. Stephanie Christopher here, chief executive of The Executive Connection. TEC connects CEOs, executives, and business owners to the world’s largest business leader network. Okay. Can you count me in?

Leah: Absolutely. One, two, three, four.

Stephanie: Today, our guest is Youcef Abdi, who is the New South Wales coaching and development officer for Little Athletics. Youcef has such an interesting story about how he found his way to Australia, but even more interestingly is how he set a dream, how he had a dream from an early age, how he followed that dream right through, and how he has demonstrated such resilience along the way. And I’m really excited to be having that conversation with Youcef. Born in Algeria, Youcef fled his home country for Australia when he was a teenager, and obtained Australian citizenship in 2000. A four time national steeplechase champion and one time 1500 meter national champion, Youcef represented Australia at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, finishing sixth against the world’s best. Just 0.14 seconds outside of the Australian record. And competed at his second games in London in 2012, finishing sixth in the steeplechase. So, a very impressive story, and former Olympian, Youcef Abdi, welcome to TEC live.

Youcef: Oh, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. And it’s an honour to share my story with the listeners.

Stephanie: Oh, wonderful. Thank you. When did your dream of becoming an Olympian start?

Youcef: Probably when I was around maybe 12-13. So, just to take you back a little bit, I was born in Algeria, in a tiny village of about 800 people. And when I was two, we moved to France. So, my primary schooling was done in France, great memories. And for all the football listeners, I went to school with a soccer player called Thierry Henry, very famous in France and he played for Arsenal. And then we went back to Algeria, especially my mom, she thought France wasn’t a place… It’s too busy for her, I guess. So, she rather stay in a smaller village, tighter community. So, we end up moving back as a family.

Stephanie: How old were you when you moved back?

Youcef: I was maybe 10-11.

Stephanie: Okay.

Youcef: It was enjoyable because when you live in a small community, there’s hardly any rules. You go out whenever you want, you to come back home whenever you like. But one thing I noticed, straight away, was the commute to school. My village is situated in a top of a mountain, and the school was at the very bottom of that mountain. So, every morning, we had to walk six K’s to get to school, and then in the afternoon, we had to walk or run six K’s.

Stephanie: Easier in the morning than the trip home.

Youcef: Exactly. Right. Yes. And I remember I used to run because, back then, we only had one channel, TV channel. So, they had cartoons in the afternoon. So, I used to run to make sure I get home-

Stephanie: To make sure you got home for the cartoons, yeah.

Youcef: Yes. And then one day, I got home and they had the Olympic games, the Barcelona Olympic Games, 1992. For me, I didn’t know much about the Olympics at that stage, and I asked my dad, I said, ‘Why the cartoons are not on today?’ So, he said to me, ‘It’s Olympics, and when there are Olympics, the world simply stops.’ So, I was, kind of, taken by that phrase, and I was a little bit upset because I wanted to watch my cartoons, that’s, kind of, my daily routine. However, I was very impressed by all the athletes and the events I was watching. And I started to ask questions, telling my dad, ‘What is this tournament?’ So, he explained to me a little bit, that it is a tournament where the very best athletes all around the world, they go to this one city, every four years, and they compete, and every country will send their best team, et cetera, et cetera.

So, I was very… Pretty much, I was… Started dreaming already, about me going to this tournament. And I said, ‘Oh, do you think I can go one day?’ And he said, ‘Well, you have to be an athlete first. You have to start… Choose a sport and start practicing.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, can I be an athlete?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, well you have two arms, two legs. So, yes you can.’ So, that’s pretty much where it started. And I remember back then, we had two famous athletes in Algeria. They actually… One of them was favourite to win the 1500 meters, but he finished seventh, I think. And then another one, a female, she won the 1500 meters.

Stephanie: Right. At Barcelona, yeah.

Youcef: Yes. So, for a country like Algeria, and at that time, it was going through very tough times with the rise of Muslim fundamentalism terrorism. So, for a female to win on a world stage, wearing shorts, athletic shorts, and so on, it was… It’s like a defining moment for her and for females in general, in that country. And it did inspire a generation, basically. So, that’s pretty much where my desire to go to the Olympics grew. At first, I thought I would go and represent Algeria, but it didn’t pan out that way.

Stephanie: And we’ll get to that, about how it didn’t pan out that way. But what a beautiful start of the dream. And I love what your father said, ‘You’ve got two arms, two legs. Of course, you can be an athlete.’ I love that. So, you started training then, as an athlete. Formerly, did you?

Youcef: At first, I was very active because of, obviously, the commute to school, but also within the village with my school friends, and we used to play football. So, soccer was… Could easily say, the number one sport in many countries, including Algeria. So, I kept myself active, but not in an organised fashion, I guess. And my older brother, he started a cross-country with his high school, and they started traveling to all the different championships. And for being in a small village, it was kind of exciting to see this guy suddenly traveling everywhere. So, I felt jealous, in a sense, thinking, ‘Oh, I want to travel as well. I don’t want to stay in this tiny village.’ So, that’s what pushed me a little bit as well, to start practicing. And then my dad did say to me, ‘If you really want to go to Olympics, maybe you should start training, and why not go with your brother because he’s training here by himself?’

So, when he’s at school, he’s training with his school team, but most of the time, because we are so far away from the main town. So, high school for us, it was about 60 minutes by bus. So, he had to do a lot of training by himself at home, especially during school holidays. So, then I started to train and run with him, slowly, slowly. I was 100 meters behind him, and eventually, I was catching up to him, and suddenly I was ahead him.

Stephanie: Overtake him. Yeah.

Youcef: Yes. So, that’s when he said to me, ‘Wow, I don’t like you being faster than me. However, I think you have talent, and I will like to introduce you to my coach, and follow a specific training in athletics. So you are actually training properly.’ So, that was my introduction to a proper coach, I guess, and training. And that’s how I started.

Stephanie: Having grown up on the upper North shore of Sydney, and someone with talent, what was made available to them straight away, and the commitment and the resources and the opportunities. What an interesting beginning of your athletic career, trying to beat your brother, basically.

Youcef: Yeah, it is interesting. And it’s not, I guess, unusual to hear many stories like this, especially in certain parts of the world. And also, maybe I didn’t know it at that time, but in my subconscious, something was growing inside me, and something was pushing me, I guess, to something greater. But at that stage and age, I didn’t know it.

Stephanie: You just liked running and being good at it. Some point, you came to Australia for some youth championships. Was that right?

Youcef: Yes. So, in… I remember when I started serious training, when my brother introduced me to his coach. So, within six months, I made the national squad. So, we started traveling all around the country, and then we did go to Spain and Portugal and Greece. So, it was exciting, and I started to really enjoy that lifestyle of an elite athlete, even though I was still only 14-15, but I could already see the… How living a life of a sportsman could be, and how exciting it could be if I stay doing this. And in 1996, the World Juniors, they were here in Australia at Homebush. I remember that moment because my coach told us, ‘The World Juniors this year are in Sydney.’

So, we didn’t really know much about Australia and we had to go and look at maps. So, we all rushed to the library and looked at the map. So, it looked very, very far away, but straight away, I started researching and looking at all the different pictures, The Opera House, the bridge, and so on. And I thought, ‘Oh, wow, this is so… Such a cool country. It’s so beautiful.’ So, I really wanted to make the team, trained really hard, and eventually, yes, I did. And I came here for the first time in August 1996 to compete.

Stephanie: Right. Wonderful. What a great story. No idea about Australia and UK. So, now your story, the dream is firmly set, and now the resilience kicks in big time. I mean, six kilometers up and down a mountain to get to school, that’s that’s resilience in my world. At some point, there was a terrible mix-up that really changed the course of your life. Are you able to talk about that?

Youcef: Yes. So in… So, when we finished the World Juniors here in Sydney, we went back home to Algeria. And we had a good team, and we produced some good results. And the Algerian Federation, athletics, that is, and the Olympic Committee, had their mission to really look after us and nurture us and make sure that we don’t… We stay within athletics, because as I mentioned earlier, Algeria was going through a very rough time at that period. And most of the athletes, probably majority of the athletes, we were all living in small, tiny villages, not in the capital. So, the risk of us dropping out, or even with the insecurity and the situation being unsafe, the likelihood of us stopping practicing or training was very high.

So, they said, ‘You can stay here in the capital. You will train in this national training center.’ And we will be offered a scholarship to study at uni, and so on. So, that was all great. But however, when we arrived, they said, ‘Okay, you go back home now for a bit of rest, and then we will contact you.’ But that phone call never happened. So then, when I chased it up, they said, ‘No, no, there’s no… You’re not coming back. You’re staying where you are, just keep training.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s unsafe.’ And it was unsafe because we could clearly see, on a daily basis, terrorists basically driving past. Sometimes they will come to the place where we train, and they don’t threatened us directly, but they were always passing on messages, because in their eyes, we are representing the government. The fact we wearing the colours of the country. So, it’s almost like you have to choose your…

Stephanie: Allegiance.

Youcef: Yes. And as much as we say, ‘Listen, we are just teenagers trying to live a dream, and trying to train, and hopefully, one day become an elite athlete. We’re not presenting a government, we’re presenting a country.’ So, we knew, well yes, but I could really sense the danger of being where I was, that the danger is constantly around. And then the options are very limited since the government wasn’t looking after us through the scholarship program. And I missed my… I couldn’t go to uni, because I… The time pretty much has passed. So, I had to wait for another year to enrol a different course, et cetera, et cetera. And the third option was to go to the army. It’s funny, I’m saying this, but it’s almost like a… In a way, it’s a safest option.

Because for us, going into the army, you don’t go to your normal army, where you actually train to combat. As a sportsperson, you go to a sports based army. In a lot of African countries and European countries, practicing sport in the army, it’s huge. They even have World Championships in… Yeah.

Stephanie: Yeah. I understand. Yes.

Youcef: So, it was a perfect set up for me. And also, you could enrol into whatever course you want. So, pretty much, you are there, you training, you studying. And by the time you come out of the army, you have your degree and you haven’t interrupted your…

Stephanie: Athletic career.

Youcef: Yes. But somehow, I was sent to a wrong base, and that’s when all the mix up happened. And I realised, ‘Hang on, this is not… Wasn’t supposed to be here.’ And obviously, I tried to alert the people in charge, and they wouldn’t really listen.

Stephanie: So, it was a combat base?

Youcef: Yes. It was, because those kind of bases, you pretty much stay there for six months, training how to handle weapons and so on. And then they send you to the forest, I guess, and to the mountains, to combat terrorists. And…

Stephanie: That wasn’t your dream.

Youcef: No. That wasn’t my dream. Yes, exactly right.

Stephanie: And so, what did you do?

Youcef: So then, I had to make a quick decision, and I left. So… This is-

Stephanie: How quickly did you make that decision, Youcef?

Youcef: Very quickly because, pretty much had maybe 24 to 48 hours. I had to gather some money for a ticket. My plan was going to France, but I didn’t have all the necessary paperwork at that stage, and I didn’t have time to do all the administrative steps. The only option I had was a visa to Australia from the previous visit. We had 12 months. So, I just took the risk and came here. So, my plan at first, it wasn’t…

Stephanie: How old were you at the time?

Youcef: I was 18, almost 19.

Stephanie: Okay.

Youcef: Yes. So, my plan wasn’t really to stay here. It was to just use this as a transit. Go to the other side of the world and… Call it a transit, and then go to France later on. But it just didn’t happen.

Stephanie: How was that for you, as a young adult, to make that decision so quickly in such a risky environment, and move very quickly, escape really, to the other side of the world? How was that for you?

Youcef: Yeah, it is. And it was an escape. Very difficult, but I think at that moment, I was… I had a lot of adrenaline, I guess. So, I was really doing things so quick, and that was just in the moment. It was only when I arrived to the airport, I remember we left really early, like 3:00 or 4:00 AM. I remember it was really dark. And then when I got to the airport, my mom didn’t come with us. So, that was the first, kind of… When I left her at home, I could sense, she was obviously very, very upset and she couldn’t really do much to make me change my mind. And then my dad, as we were approaching Algiers airport, he started crying. And I didn’t understand at that time, thinking, ‘Well, dad what are you doing? You supposed to be the one showing me some courage and strength, and you the one crying.’

So, I had to be the one who is, I guess, the stronger out of the two. So, I kept… Even though it was really hurting inside, but somehow I managed to keep a straight face and kept calm. And I looked like everything was fine and under control, but I knew that it wasn’t the case. Deep down, I was really suffering. And also, going to the unknown. So, it was just… Yeah, it’s hard to comprehend. I don’t even know how I did it now.

Stephanie: Yes. Isn’t it funny when you look back, as an adult, to something that was so important in your life, I know that story, if you don’t know how you did it. I don’t know how much you’re comfortable talking about this, Youcef, but when you say, escaped, you actually left the camp and headed back to the village?

Youcef: Yes.

Stephanie: With some running involved, I’m assuming?

Youcef: Yes. Because it was very… It was pretty much at the other side of the country. So, to get back to where I was, or the village. Yeah. It was a long, long way. So, combination of, yeah, running, catching different means of transport to get there. Yeah.

Stephanie: Yeah. Well that in itself is an amazing story of resilience. And rather than going through everything that happened, but there’s one part of your story I do love. That you went to the Ibis Hotel at Darling Harbour, because that’s what Sydney was to you.

Youcef: Yes. When we first came here to compete, because everything was, I guess, sponsored and looked after by the organising committee. So, we didn’t know how much the cost of a hotel and meals and so on. So, and I didn’t know anyone, so, straight away, I just asked the taxi driver to take me to that hotel. And on arrival, once she told me the price, my heart almost stopped. So, then I remember I booked for a week, but then I said, ‘Listen, I changed my mind because I’m actually seeing a friend tomorrow. So, I’m just staying one night.’ Yeah. Didn’t really sleep very well that night because I was constantly thinking. I think I only had about $700 when I made the… Converted the money into Australian dollars. So, I knew that, yeah, it’s not going to last very long, and I needed to find a solution very quickly. So yeah, it was very stressful times.

Stephanie: Very stressful, incredibly stressful. In a foreign city that you had to navigate, without, as you say, sponsors and an organising committee telling you where to be every five minutes.

Youcef: Yes. And also, in Algeria, I spoke Berber as my mother tongue, then French when I went to France, then when I went back to Algeria, we studied Arabic at school. So, English wasn’t really something I spoke when I was a kid. So, I couldn’t even communicate properly with people. So yes, it was very difficult.

Stephanie: Where did you learn English? Where did you learn most of your English?

Youcef: So, pretty much here. Just, I guess when you are, as they say, desperate… What’s the saying? Desperate measures? Desperate times, desperate measures, something like that. Yeah. So, I managed to, I guess, speak. Slowly, slowly, I managed to learn. And then, eventually, when I became an Australian resident, I did go to, I think it was TAFE. I did a six months intensive course. So, that’s pretty much where I started to learn proper English, I guess. So I could communicate with people and also to have access to the business world.

Stephanie: Yes. I love when you say proper English, because I have read about you, that you learned some English on the job early on, and it was pretty colourful.

Youcef: Yes, that’s right, because some of… Obviously, it was very hard for me to get a job because each time you walk into a coffee shop or a food shop, or… then you start talking, straight away, they say, ‘No, we don’t have any job.’ The only job I got was at Marrickville Metro, it was a shopping center, and this Lebanese guy employed me because I could speak a little bit of Arabic, and the job was just collecting trolleys. So, you don’t really need to speak anyway. But I think he was more interested, the fact that I was fit and I said, ‘Listen, I’m an athlete. I can run all day if you want. I can collect all the trolleys of this suburb. You don’t need to worry about that.’ So, that’s pretty much the selling point for him. And it suit me well, but the pay was probably… Was $5, I think, from my memory.

Yeah. So, I had to work really long hours just to survive. But it didn’t bother me at that time. It was more to survive. And I was independent, which was… Or again, somehow independent by earning money. So, that was very important for me, so I could pay rent, buy food and so on. And then the language you learn is just from people like me, I guess, just new to the country, they hardly spoke English. So, it was just a mixture of, yeah. Very colourful street language.

Stephanie: Yeah. You picked that up straight away.

Youcef: That’s easy to learn, by the way.

Stephanie: Yeah, that’s right. Easy to learn. What is it about you that helped you focus on your dream right through, and that gave you the resilience and will to survive?

Youcef: I will try and explain it, but I think the fact I had that dream from a young age and somehow I wanted to go to the Olympics no matter what. So, even though I knew… I wasn’t naive, I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. Especially after my life pretty much shifted or changed course or path, it would be very difficult. But something inside me just had that desire to get to the Olympics one day. And also, when I left, my dad, I remember he said to me, ‘You’re not going to Australia just to eat and go to the bathroom. You make sure that if this is your dream, and this is the reason you’re leaving your brothers, and sister, and your parents, and your life behind, you need to make sure that you get there.’ So, that’s probably what pushed me, I guess.

And also, for me, I just saw the Olympics as a part of me. I realised, from a young age, that being an Olympian is… Almost like I was destined to become an Olympian. So, therefore, I had to do everything possible to get there. And sometimes you hear or read stories about other people and their journey. It’s never easy. So, that gives me comfort because I think, ‘Okay. So, it’s not just me who is going through hardship. Even this person who made it to the World Cup in football, or made it to the Olympics in gymnastics, and whatever the sport might be, they had to go through a rough time because their country was going through a civil war, or they were dodging bullets when they were training, but they kept their focus and they got there.’

So, for me, there is no reason for me to fail. And the fact, now I’m in Australia, it’s a safe country. I have all the opportunities in the world to actually make it happen. Yes, it is hard, I don’t speak the language yet. Yes, it is hard, I’m not at school or uni or work. But I’m safe. I’m healthy. And if I just keep pushing, eventually, things will fall into the right places.

Stephanie: How did it feel walking into the stadium at the opening ceremony in 2008 in Beijing?

Youcef: It was incredible, because even before I got to Beijing, I remember my hope was to run in Sydney. I wasn’t selected. So, that was a heartbreaking moment. In fact, I even almost gave up athletics, and then I stopped training for a few months. And then, at some point, something, a voice inside me was telling me, ‘No, you cannot do that. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re still young. You don’t let something like this stop you from continuing.’ So, then in 2004, same thing, I won the Olympic trials and I wasn’t selected. That’s the irony with the selector sometimes, you win the trials, and you still… You might not gain selection. So, anyway, in 2008, third time lucky, I was selected. And it was an honour to put the green and gold jersey on. And walking into the Olympic stadium, it was just mind blowing, because it’s something that you’ve been training and dreaming for a long time, and then suddenly you see 110,000 people.

Stephanie: The lights flashing.

Youcef: Yes. It’s just… Yeah. You feel like… That movie, Gladiator, you go into an arena and your heart is just beating so fast, but then at the same time, something calms you down. Suddenly you don’t hear anyone because you are just in your own world. You are there to do your thing. It’s almost like you’re there in front of the world, but you’re there by yourself. So, it is incredible. And then, knowing you lining up against, and with the best in the world, in your trade, that’s an honour in itself. Yeah. It was just an amazing feeling. And before I got there, I remembered, I had a tattoo of my people in Algeria. So, I’m a Berber, and Berbers are the indigenous people in Algeria. So, in a way, we are marginalised a little bit as well, in Algeria. So, for me, it’s another way to show that, yeah, we are here, and there is one of you guys, even though I’m running for Australia, but I’m representing you. So, for me, that was a goal or a box that I ticked. And I’m very proud to do that.

Stephanie: You must be so proud. And your parents watched you on TV, I’m assuming, in the opening ceremony, did they?

Youcef: Yes. Funny enough, that was the first time my mom and dad saw me run. So, all those years when I was running, back home, they came to any of my cross-country races. Or sometimes we would be competing a couple of K’s away from where we lived, but they never actually saw me run. So, that was the first time, on TV. Yes.

Stephanie: Wow. And your older brother, did he keep running?

Youcef: No. Same with my other… I’ve got two brothers. They didn’t, and that was… That’s the fate. If you stay in Algeria, that will be… Yes. And deep down, before I left, I knew. So, that’s why I took the risk and came to Australia.

Stephanie: This has to be a movie. It has to be a movie. Your parents… Your father, having that conversation with you on the way to the airport, and then sitting, watching you run, for the first time, at the Olympics. It’s an incredible story.

Youcef: Yes. I mean, I’m very proud, as I said to you earlier, sometimes I don’t know how I managed to do all these things, especially being so young and limited with language and finances and so on. But yes, it’s incredible, I guess. And sometimes when I hear, even when I watch the news sometimes, people moving to another country, I do understand and feel what they go through. But I don’t think… If I had to go back and do it again, I don’t think I would have the courage to do it.

Stephanie: Yeah. I mean, I just… While you’ve been talking then, Youcef, I’ve been thinking about that visa. How lucky. How lucky that there was an Australian visa on your passport that you could just-

Youcef: Yes. Sometimes… Yes. One person told me an advice, you don’t get many opportunities in life. Sometimes you will get one, and that’s in every… Whether it’s in business or… Yeah. You can apply that to anything. And if you don’t take it, you will never see that opportunity again. So, I guess, with me, for this particular scenario, it was the visa. I had that visa in… And I took the chance and I took the risk. Most of the other athletes from the team, or my teammates back then. Yeah. Some of them are in Algeria now, I don’t know what they’re doing. Some of them obviously stopped running. Some of them probably are still in sport, but definitely, I don’t think they’re living the kind of life I’m living here in Australia.

Stephanie: So, tell me about post-Olympics. You lived the dream, two Olympic games. What did you do then, when you had reached that pinnacle, and then it was time to think about something else? How was that for you?

Youcef: Yeah. It’s always hard, I guess, when you start to see the end of the journey, or the… What’s next. But, with me, I was very fortunate that this job in athletics came at the right time, and it’s almost… It’s my hobby, anyway. So, getting paid for doing your hobby, that’s like a dream in itself. It just came at the right time. I think I was just very lucky. And I do enjoy working in athletics because it’s something I have done all my life. So, I do go to schools a lot, and I tell them my story as I do a presentation, where they actually see pictures of my village, and the Olympics, and how Olympians live inside the Olympic village. So, it is, I think, an honour to share the story with all these kids. We go to a lot of schools, regional New South Wales, Metro.

And I’m hoping that, especially for regional kids, that it doesn’t matter where you are, where you’re from. If you have a dream, if you have the courage and the desire to pursue the dream, you can. Because when I compare myself, or the area where I was born and did most of my athletics, compared to the kids here in Australia, it doesn’t matter how regional-

Stephanie: Yeah, that’s right.

Youcef: Yeah. They are still a lot better off. They have proper training facilities, they have their moms and dads, they drive them everywhere. They have good food, they have good schools. So, there is really no reasons for them not to achieve their goals. So, I try and convey that message. Hopefully, it’s translating. And hopefully, some kids are benefiting from my story, and they will take it on and absorb it. And hopefully, it might have an impact on them.

Stephanie: It’s an inspirational story. And you’ve just said three words, to have the dream, to have the courage, and to have the desire. And you’ve really shared those three parts of your story with us today. There’s a fourth word I’m going to add. And that’s humility, which oozes from you, Youcef. Thank you for being so open with us and sharing your story of inspiration, and sharing your dream. Thank you very much, Youcef Abdi.

Youcef: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

Stephanie: So, that’s TEC live for today. CEOs are in the business of making decisions, and leadership is the art of execution. I’m Stephanie Christopher, and look forward to talking to you next time.

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