Azerbaijan’s paralympic athletes first competed at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, USA, where Azerbaijan was also first represented as an independent state. When talking about Azerbaijani paralympians, the name of Ilham Zakiyev always springs to mind. This is because the 36-year-old judoka, competing in the heavyweight (+100 kg) category, is a double Olympic champion, gold-medalist at the Baku 2015 inaugural European Games, double world champion and six-time European champion.

And the list of achievements goes on: Ilham Zakiyev has twice been awarded the Order of Honour (in 2008 and 2015) by the President of Azerbaijan for success in sport and winning gold at the 1st European Games. He has also won the Progress medal and in 2009 received the title of Honoured Master of Sports. On 10 May 2012, he was awarded the Heydar Aliyev Foundation’s international Golden Chinar award.

Naturally, Visions of Azerbaijan has been keen to catch up with Ilham Zakiyev and was fortunate to meet him at his home in Sumgayit …

Even the doctors told my parents that I wouldn’t survive

How would Ilham Zakiyev like to introduce himself to our readers?

I was born on 3 March 1980 in the city of Sumgayit into a simple Azerbaijani family as one of four children – three boys and one girl. I got involved in sports thanks to my brother Fikret. He was a freestyle wrestler. At the age of 10, I started wrestling too and then I started doing judo at 15.

Why did you choose judo?

At that time, I was watching a lot of “no rules” fighting and I saw that it was the judokas who were winning those fights. As a young man of 15 I also wanted to be the strongest and so I began doing this type of sport. I don’t regret my choice.

I started learning the secrets of judo at the Mehdi Huseynzadeh stadium gym in Sumgayit, run by Ahmad Rajabli. I had success within a short period of time, becoming the city champion and winning numerous republic-wide awards. In my last fight in June 1998, I won the Azerbaijani championship and qualified for the Youth Olympics in Moscow. But, a month after my 18th birthday, on 2 June, I began my army service, to serve my country.

Could you cast your mind back to the day when you were badly wounded during your military service?

I differed from my peers because of my physical size, which is why I was selected and sent to the intelligence unit of the N regiment from the Beylagan region. I continued my military service as a reconnaissance specialist and received certificates of honour for my exemplary service.

On 4 February 1999 I was shot by an enemy sniper during a combat mission around the village of Ashagi Abdurahmanli in the Fuzuli region. The bullet entered my left temple and exited through the right temple. I was in a coma for five days. Even the doctors told my parents that I wouldn’t survive, that I would die and they should be ready for that. My heart was still beating because I was an athlete. But I came out of the coma in five days...

I woke up when I heard my mother’s voice. But I couldn’t see her, it was dark everywhere. I completely lost my sight as a result of the wound. I returned home as a level 1 disabled veteran of the Karabakh War. Almost everything changed in my life. I wasn’t yet 19 when this happened to me. All my plans were turned upside down; I wouldn’t wish it to happen to anyone. It was very difficult to get used to the situation I was in at the time.

What brought you back to life and gave you a reason to live?

First of all, it was God. I thank God, he is great. My family, relatives and friends were with me and we came out of this situation. The strength and the moral support that they gave me were great, which is how I have got to where I am today.

Who helped you return to sport?

It was me. In 2002 I applied to Abulfas Garayev - who was minister of youth and sports at that time - as a former sportsman to get assistance for my medical treatment. I’m grateful to him for his help. Abulfas muellim reported all this to the president of the National Olympic Committee, Mr Ilham Aliyev, and they sent me to Moscow for a medical examination. However, the doctors didn’t give me any good news after fully examining me. They said that at the moment it is medically impossible to restore my sight.

After returning to Baku, I met with a great person, a head of department at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, Taghi Taghiyev. I asked him if there is any type of wrestling for visually impaired people at the Paralympics. He immediately called the National Paralympic Committee and found out that there was Judo for visually impaired people. When Tagi muellim heard this, he was perhaps as happy as me.

What did he recommend you do?

He said: You’re destined to be an Olympic, world and European champion, go and start training. The whole team, led by the president of the National Paralympic Committee Ilgar Rahimov, welcomed me very warmly. They invited a coach and gave me everything I needed. On 1 November 2002, I returned to sport by starting to train again. I was once again at the Mehdi Huseynzadeh stadium under the supervision of Ahmad Rajabli. Only this time I was part of the Paralympic movement.

Of course, your main goal was to qualify for the Paralympic Games. How did you achieve this in such a short period of time?

My primary goal was to participate at the World Olympiad for visually impaired athletes in 2003 in Quebec, Canada. It was the only tournament to qualify for the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games in Athens. We prepared hard for this for eight months and I returned home with a bronze medal. That’s how I won the right to compete at the Paralympic Games for the first time.

How do you remember the day you became a Paralympic champion?

On 20 September 2004, I stepped onto the tatami mat in Athens. My first opponent was the Cuban Rafael Torres Pompa, who I lost to in Quebec. Everybody was worried that I could lose again. I told them: Don’t worry, I’m well prepared, I’ll try to win.

And so it happened, in the quarterfinal I beat my opponent in 1 minute 20 seconds by ippon. In the semifinal I beat my Spanish opponent Fermin Campos Arisa in 37 seconds by ippon. In the final, I met the bronze medalist of the Atlanta Olympics, British judoka Ian Rose and won a clear victory in 1 minute 2 seconds.

Azerbaijan was competing in the judo competition at the Paralympic Games for the first time and I was the only representative. I coped with this responsibility. The flag of Azerbaijan was raised in the ancient land of Greece and our anthem was heard. It became one of the most memorable days in my life. Of course, my first Paralympic Games title was one of the greatest achievements in my career but my aim was not to be satisfied with this and to continue gaining success.

All my plans were turned upside down; I wouldn’t wish it to happen to anyone

How would you compare your second Paralympics victory with the first one?

At the Paralympic Games in Athens nobody considered me a serious opponent. But at the Paralympic Games in Beijing the situation was different. They approached me seriously, as the European, world and Paralympic champion. Of course, I didn’t rest over those four years either, I was preparing seriously. It paid off. I kept my title.

Your third consecutive Paralympic medal was bronze rather than gold. Why do you think that was?

The main reason is that the Japanese athlete Kento Masaki didn’t have any problem with his sight. I knew this in advance. There are three categories of wrestlers and judokas. The first is B1 – those who can’t see at all, like me; the second is B2 – those with poor eyesight; and finally B3 is for those with reasonable eyesight. Unfortunately, all these categories wrestle together. Of course, the fact that the Japanese athlete could see was an advantage for him but I thank God that I was able to get my revenge on him. In February 2015, in the final of the World Cup in Hungary, I faced him again and beat him in 1 minute 23 seconds.

How do you prepare yourself for a fight? How do you analyse your opponents?

We do it together with the coaches. I know the strengths of every opponent very well but we also know our strengths and try to use them. I have my favourite techniques to use. But my opponents don’t waste their time either; they study me. So we work on new techniques. I’m already preparing seriously for the next Paralympic Games. I’ve already qualified for them and my aim is to become champion again. Inshallah, I will represent Azerbaijan well in Rio de Janeiro and make our people happy by winning.

What information do you have about your main rivals at the 2016 Paralympic Games this summer?

One of my new opponents is an Uzbek judoka; he has no problem with his sight. There are Japanese, Cuban and Brazilian athletes among my main rivals but there is no clear favourite in our competition. As the competition is very hard, it isn’t easy to win medals, but I’m not getting discouraged. If I were to get discouraged, I wouldn’t have so many achievements.

I’m a member of the Neftchi Sports Club. Ahmad Rajabli, his assistant, my personal coach Elkhan Rajabli and head coach of our Paralympic national team Ibrahim Ibrahimov did a tremendous job with us. At the same time, I express my gratitude to the management of the National Paralympic Committee and particularly Ilgar Rahimov. I train in Sumgayit at the National Paralympic Sports Complex and sport is now my lifestyle and my job. I love my job very much. Not everyone is destined to do the job he or she loves. One great person said that a happy person is someone who is glad when they go to work and glad when they return home and I’m one of those fortunate people.

How did you receive the news that you would compete at the Baku 2015 European Games?

I was both very happy and excited when the management of the Paralympic Committee informed me about it. I was told that para-judo was included in the tournament just because of me. It was a great responsibility for me and I understood this. The European Games were going to be organised in my country and I was going to fight at this tournament which was being held for the first time in history, so I started preparing for the 1st European Games with a great sense of responsibility.

The fact that you were chosen to carry the torch at the opening ceremony must have increased the responsibility...

Of course. Three months before the opening, I received a call from the Ministry of Youth and Sports and was asked to come to the ministry the next day at 3pm to meet the minister, Azad Rahimov. Azad muellim told me that the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, and the chairwoman of the European Games Organising Committee, Mehriban Aliyeva, had chosen me from the many candidates to bring the torch to the stadium at the opening ceremony.

I was shocked when I heard about this. I was speechless. This was one of the greatest presents in my life. The minister also told me that it should be kept secret until the opening ceremony. Nobody should know that I would be carrying the torch and I kept it secret. Can you imagine, I was so excited - I didn’t even say anything about it at home!

How did you prepare for the opening ceremony?

Once or twice a week we went to the Baku Olympic Stadium at 12 or 1 at night and had rehearsals. We went there at night because nobody should see us.

When I was to carry the torch, taekwondo youth Olympic champion Said Guliyev was to be near me. It was a nice surprise for everyone when they saw me carrying the torch. In the stadium, filled with 68,000 thousand people, everyone was crying except for 10 people. These were tears of joy. The 10 people that weren’t crying were members of the Armenian national team. I’m pleased that I did this very honorable job.

Two weeks later you had to justify the faith placed in you by winning the European Games…

When the president of Azerbaijan lit the torch for the European Games at Ateshgah, I had a short dialogue with him. Mr Ilham Aliyev and Mrs Mehriban Aliyeva asked me about how prepared I was for the competition. I told the president that on 26 June – on Azerbaijani Armed Forces Day – I would walk onto the tatami and try to present a medal to our Supreme Commander. And they told me that they were expecting only a gold medal from me. Before the final, I was informed that the president would come to watch my fight. I was excited, my responsibility as well as my strength increased tenfold, as if I was given a second wind. I knew that I wouldn’t lose in the final - the whole of Azerbaijan was expecting a gold medal from me.

This could have added psychological pressure. How strong was your belief in winning?

In the final, my opponent was Ukrainian Aleksandr Pominov who I had already fought two years before at the European Championships in Hungary in the decisive fight of the team competition. Back then he told me: Ilham, I will train very hard and beat you. On the day before the final, at the weigh-in, I shook hands with him and said: Welcome! Have you trained a lot to beat me? And he got upset. After I won the final, I told him that he has to train really hard to beat me.

When the president approached the podium and hung the gold medal around your neck, it became one of the most memorable moments of the entire Games...

I first congratulated our president on Azerbaijani Armed Forces Day. I asked him to stand with me at the podium. With great thanks to Mr Ilham Aliyev he accepted my offer. I said: Supreme Commander, soldier Zakiyev carried out the mission you gave him, i.e. by winning the gold medal. The president hugged and congratulated me and said: Ilham, Azerbaijan is proud of you. That day was also my younger son Hamza’s birthday: he turned 2. My victory was a great present for him as well.

Would you like to come across Armenians on the tatami? How do you imagine a fight like this would be?

I can’t imagine what I would do at that moment. I can’t say anything now. This is sport, anything can happen. We shouldn’t mix sport with politics. Armenians aren’t at such a high level in Paralympic sports yet to be able to compete with us.

When do you plan to finish your sporting career? Do you plan to become a coach?

Quite frankly, I haven’t thought about becoming a coach yet. We don’t have any age limitation on competing so I will fight as long as I have the strength. I also aim to compete at the Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku in 2017 and to win there. The Judo Federation, its president, Rovnag Abdullayev, and vice president, Sadig Sadigov, have provided good conditions for us and so I’m grateful to them. I take part in the national Olympic team training sessions.

Have you still hope that you will open your eyes one day? If it happens, what would you like to see first?

My children’s faces. I don’t lose hope of opening my eyes one day. God makes so many miracles happen. In 2005, I passed a medical examination in Israel with the support of Mr Ilham Aliyev. One professor told me there:

Ilham, if 10 years ago someone were to tell you that a heart or kidney could be changed, you wouldn’t have believed it. But today surgery like this is done in every hospital in Israel. It may be that your problem could also be resolved in one, five or 10 years time.

And I live with this hope. I have regular contact with doctors. They are interested in all the innovations that are happening in medicine. They are also interested in doing this for me because now many people know Ilham Zakiyev. If the doctors can open my eyes, it will be a great success for them as well.

I don’t lose hope of opening my eyes one day

Of course, you wish for our occupied lands to be freed more than anyone…

After the European Games, I went to the front and the trenches with the Ministry of Defense. I went to several regions, including Fuzuli and visited the military unit where I served. I gave the flag that I waved at the European Games to our intelligence servicemen. I told them that I did my job by winning on the sports field and got our flag raised. Now I give this flag to you, your task is to release our lands from occupation and wave our flag over Khankendi and Shusha. They promised me to do it. Inshallah, in the near future we will liberate our lands from occupation.