An Indonesian motorbike racer lost his leg in a crash. Now he is gunning for Paralympic glory

JAKARTA (CNA) – It was supposed to be a glorious day for Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin.

The motorcycle racer, who was then 30 years old, was the first to cross the finish line at the Indonesian leg of the Asia Road Racing Championship (ARRC) on June 7, 2015.

He had been dreaming of winning a race in front of a home crowd for weeks. The win also put him on top of the leaderboard and he had a shot of becoming Indonesia’s first ARRC Supersports 600cc class champion.

Imammuddin was ecstatic. But just as he was celebrating his win and began to wave back at the cheering crowd, another racer rammed him from behind at full speed.

The crash was so violent that Imammuddin was hospitalised for the next four months. But the real blow came when doctors told him that his lower left leg was so badly injured it had to be amputated.

“I was terrified. I worried about my future. My wife was pregnant with my first son. I thought, ‘How am I supposed to provide for my family?’” he told CNA.

Muhammad Fadli Imammuddin has scooped gold, silver and bronze at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta
Muhammad Fadli switching to his walking prosthesis after a training session in the hilly suburbs of Jakarta. PHOTOS: CNA

Imammuddin, now 36, said even after his leg was amputated he was determined to get back on the motorcycle. He had been racing professionally since he was 17. “Motorcycle racing was all I know,” he said.

But there were times when he doubted himself and thought that his racing days were over. “I was bed-ridden for a very long time. I was in such bad shape I couldn’t sit upright for more than a few minutes,” he said.

It was the birth of his son, just a few weeks after his crash, which gave him a much-needed motivation.

“I told myself, ‘I have a son now and I have to get back on my feet. I have extra responsibility. I cannot slouch around. I cannot give up,’” he said. “I made a promise to myself that I had to walk before my son could walk. It became a competition for me.”

“I set a target for myself. I have to take more steps in every rehabilitation training that I did. In the beginning, just standing up with my new prosthetic leg was labourious and I felt like I was going to pass out. But soon I was taking one step, then two, then three,” he said.

Imammuddin succeeded in his earlier goal of being able to walk before his newborn son could, but it would take him a few more months before he was finally comfortable to get back on his motorcycle.

“I had my motorbike modified so I could shift gears with my right feet. But I was still out of shape. Before the crash I could do 20 laps non-stop and this time I could barely do five,” he said.

He needed a way to get back into shape. “That’s how I started cycling,” Imammuddin said.

Imammuddin said a man approached him in late 2016 as he was hanging out at a cafe in the hilly suburbs of Jakarta frequented by professional and amateur cyclists.

The man told him, “You know, even able-bodied people would find it hard to cycle in these hills. But you can do it with ease despite your disability.”

The man introduced himself as Raja Sapta Oktohari, a businessman who would later be the chairman of the Indonesia Asian Para Games Organising Committee. “He asked if I would be interested in participating in the Para Games,” Imammuddin said.

The Para Games would be held in Jakarta in 2018, right after the Asian Games, and Indonesia in 2016 did not have a para-cycling athlete.

“(Oktohari) said that he needed someone to compete in the para-cycling events and that I would be a good fit,” Imammuddin said.

“I never dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist. At the time, I only cycled to get myself in shape so I could be a motorcycle racer again.”

Nevertheless, Imammuddin told Oktohari that he was interested. But it would take another chance meeting with Indonesia’s cycling legend Puspita Mustika Adya to seal the deal.

Mustika said in a 2018 interview with Indonesian media Viva News that he was there at the Sentul Circuit when Imammuddin’s accident occurred. “I even shook hands with Fadli. We all cheered when Fadli won the race but then I saw Fadli being rammed and thrown off his bike,” he said.

Mustika said he had heard about Imammuddin’s amputation from a friend. When he saw a Facebook video of Imammuddin cycling, just over a year after his crash, Mustika said he was shocked and became interested in meeting Imammuddin in person.

Imammuddin recalled the time when Mustika came to his house. “It was not long after I met (Oktohari). (Mustika) said he had seen a video of me cycling and praised me. He also asked if I was interested in becoming a para-cycling athlete,” he said.

The words of encouragement from a cycling legend and the confidence that he had shown was what convinced Imammuddin to pursue a different career and become Indonesia’s first para cycling-athlete.

Imammuddin and coach Mustika soon got to work and Imammuddin trained with able-bodied cycling professionals. In March 2017, less than three months after they started training, Imammuddin participated in the Asian Road Cycling Championships in Manama, Bahrain. Imammuddin finished fourth in the C-4 individual time trial category. C-4 is a para-cycling classification for athletes who can compete with standard bicycles and have either one leg amputated below the knee or both arms amputated below the elbows.

In September that year, Imammuddin got his first taste of the podium as a para-cycling athlete when he won the bronze medal at the 2017 Asean Para Games in Malaysia. A year later at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta, he won a gold, a silver and a bronze medal at three different track and road para-cycling events. Imammuddin is now training for the Paralympics in Tokyo.

The games were supposed to be held in August but because of the COVID-19 pandemic they have been pushed back to next year.

Last Monday, organisers of the Paralympics said the opening ceremony will take place on August 24 next year, with 539 events to be scheduled until the closing ceremony on September 5.

While the postponement has given Imammuddin more time to prepare, the pandemic also meant that he had to train on his own.

“I still need to improve my speed and my performance, because my goal is to win a medal at the Paralympics,” he said, adding that he has a target of shaving off 10 seconds from his personal record of four minutes and 52 seconds on a 4,000m track.