The Malta Independent 13 November 2019, Wednesday

Staying alive - exclusive interview with Maltese athlete Michael Gafa

Raymond Scicluna Friday, 14 June 2019, 10:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

The spotlight today is on Michael Gafa', 40 years old, La Sallian, happily married to Amanda for fourteen years and counting, father of two daughters: Aurora and Giulia, 11 and 7-year-old respectively. Graduated as Pharmacist in 2001, then completed a Diploma in Management and a Masters in Business Administration from Maastricht School of Management. He works as a Pharmacist at Mater Dei. Proud of his Zejtun roots, he is a band musician with Beland Band Club but even plays demanding roles in Good Friday' s re-enactment's pageant.  He is an avid sportsman. He started with running, then cycling, now Triathlon and will soon be taking part in the Alive Cycling Challenge for the third year in a row two weeks after his baptism of fire in his first ever Ironman experience!

1. Michael, these interviews are not meant just for the top elite athletes but even for those who show passion and love in their sports. Passion can be highly contagious to others and it inspires many. You are one who are really allured to Challenges in the likes of Ironman and the Alive Cycle Challenge. You lead an extra ordinary busy life. You work full time job with a part time too and yet you have embarked on a sports discipline which demands above all TIME!! The Triathlon! You are a husband, a father of two daughters who are both into sports too. Your way of coping into all this is highly commendable but how do you manage all this on daily basis?

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It's very difficult to understand how I manage to fit in everything. Primarily I try to fit my schedule around my full time and part-time work. Five years ago I started working on a shift basis at Mater Dei Hospital and that helped me to step up my efforts and training in sports. As you said, one discipline is already demanding let alone focusing your energy on three disciplines. Besides, I try to fit in other activities which are not sports related. Another aspect is the Family. Sometimes I have to give up time with family to be able to train. At times the only free time I have to dedicate completely to them is when going abroad on a holiday. But then again if the opportunity rises I try to go out early for a training session before going around. For instance, last December we were for a holiday in Slovenia I tried to keep my fitness by doing some runs. It was not easy as I never experienced training outside in temperatures of -4 degrees. Willingness and motivation are the key.

2. Michael, being a former LaSallian student left an indelible mark on you especially when it comes to Sports. You started running and competing during school times with positive encouraging results. I can vouch for you that the dual career path at that time was something unheard of, so you followed suit and left sports for studies. Nevertheless, the passion was still there flaming inside you. What was the turning point to hit the tarmac once again and feel the adrenalin of the competitive edge once? You improved so much since you started, can you specify in depth your journey in sports and its evolution?

I started running when I was in Form 1 at De La Salle. I don't know what pushed me to start running but back then at School we had three amazing P.E. teachers Mr. Joe and Gino Mallia, and Mr. Martin Abel. There was also Mr. John Taylor who was also an important figure for sports at De La Salle. I had a promising few years at school and along with fellow other runners we used to dominate the cross country and road running league. My best result to date was when I came first in the Under 15 category when I was in Form 4 and 10th or 11th overall (can't recall the exact placing) in the road running league. In those days we had several high-profile runners at De La Salle. Unfortunately, after form 5, I moved to Junior college and I lost the motivation and push to train. I tried again to start when I went to University but it only lasted a month.

Then 5 years ago as many do after a run I saw several posts on facebook of friends who did the half marathon, some of them never did any running when we were young. That ignited in me again the drive to re-start running. In fact the morning after I put on my casual running shoes and went for a 5km run along the Marsascala coast. I remember doing it in around 32 minutes and I was going to die, fatigue, muscle stiffness and all the things you feel after a long time of inactivity. From then on, I never looked back. It was tough as I also picked up some injuries which sometimes were demotivating but as time went by I started gaining back my running fitness. After two years I also tried experimenting with triathlon. It's quite challenging as I never trained any swimming or cycling. In fact the first time I went for a swimming lesson after 25 metres in the pool I was already short of breath! After two years I stopped triathlon to focus on running as I always felt at home in this sport. But this last year I re-started training triathlon due to the upcoming Ironman race in June.

When I re-started running I always wondered how on earth people run so fast in certain distances. My first comeback race was the 10km run of Zurrieq and did it in a time of 48:40. Fast forward two years and late in 2017 I managed to break the magic barrier for a 10km run and went sub 40. I was doing very well and within two month I even managed to lower my time below 39 minutes. My comeback year in 2015 was an interesting one as I managed to complete two half marathons, three sprint triathlons and the International Marathon Challenge which was the last one to finish with a majestic route of 25km from St. Paul's Bay straight into the heart of Valletta!

PBs...the magic word that every athlete has in mind. To date my best times ar 17:57 for a 5km, 38:36 for a 10k and 1:25:36 for the half marathon.

As I said before initially I questioned myself, at my age, would I be able to improve or bring down the running times significantly. Well, you need to be patient, train hard but smart and persevere. Something that I lacked for over 20 years since I left De La Salle College. In fact that is my biggest regret. I cannot cancel my past and will never bring back the time I lost being inactive but now I am very happy with what I am achieving in my very own little world. Everyone wants to win gold, get first place, win age categories etc etc but what really gives me motivation and courage is that I hopefully leave a positive impact on those who are really close to my heart especially my family. I never pushed my kids into sports, they chose to start training and they will decide what they want to do. But it seems that they look up at me as their hero. And in today's hectic world, I believe it is very important that children get into sports as there are too many distractions out there!

 

3. Michael, you hail from a rural and historical village Zejtun. You pride yourself for this! You were born and live with your family to this day at Zejtun. You are a band musician of the Zejtun Beland Band Club and also features in their yearly Good Friday's re-enactments. Am convinced you were happy with the new President nomination.... I can tell that you are so attached to this village, what do you find so special in Zejtun and different from other villages?

Indeed I am very proud of my origins. Zejtun has a rich history attached to it and is very rich in culture. I grew up living in the village core close to the main square and I believe that even contributed to my attachment to Good Friday, the Village feast, and the Band Club. I also served for ten years as an altar boy in Zejtun, the highlight of this being my one month experience in 1990 as an altar boy at the Vatican City. This gave me the opportunity to meet in person Pope John Paul II. That was a day that I will treasure all my life. I can't really explain what makes Zejtun so special! And now we are even more proud with the recent nomination of the President of Malta. His Excellency actually lives in the same street I grew up and lived with my mother as my father passed away 27 years ago.

4. Michael, the saying goes: behind every strong man is even a stronger woman! I reckon that your wife Amanda backs and supports you 360degree. It's not easy for a husband, a father of two and a worker to carry this load by himself. How can you rate your wife's support into all this? Sometimes, agreeing on an issue is already tough, let alone enjoying the backing of your wife.

My wife is one of a kind. Her presence in my life is making all the difference. This year we will be celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary on the 24th July. Can't believe so many years have passed. To be able to support my hectic life style and character, I truly believe that I really bumped into the perfect person on a New Year's Eve night in 1999. I already started making her life difficult before getting married because I was heavily involved in the local pharmacy student association and in my final year of studies I decided to take it a step further and formed part of the European Pharmacy Students Association as a Vice-President. We are a very normal couple (I think), well at least my wife is, I am not sure how normal I am as I really drive her crazy at times with all the things I come up with. But that's me. And the beauty of it is that she is there for me always, even in silence! Sometimes I jokingly tell her, if you had decided to go on missionary work instead of marrying me, your life would have been easier!

5. Michael, you were hooked by the Alive Cycling Challenge since this is your third challenge attempt. It all started by coincidence yet your sense of belonging to the cause is enviable. The cycling challenge is a major event organised by Alive Charity Foundation. The foundation has fast becoming a recognised NGO and registered under the Commission of Voluntary Organisations. It was the first local foundation to raise funds for medical research in Malta.  Alive Foundation deemed fit that the most effective way to combat cancer was to carry out strategic research at the University of Malta. How much money did Alive Foundation collected over the years and who were the ultimate beneficiaries?

The cycling challenge is the major event organised by Alive Charity Foundation. To date the Foundation has managed to collect over half a million euro in donations from which at the moment 5 researchers are benefitting for the doctoral and post-doctoral research studies.

I started doing the Alive Cycling Challenge due to an injury which I picked up in my lower back which was not sport related. In a nutshell I carried a full gas cylinder for around 200m in one hand and that caused me severe pain and inflammation in my lower back muscles. I was undergoing all sorts of therapy including physiotherapy, massage, stretching, osteopathy, and acupuncture but the sharp pain was not going. I stopped running and focused on swimming but still it was not helping at all. I was finding it hard to digest this situation and frustration started to kick in. Then one fine day I decided to attend a participants' meeting in preparation of the Alive Cycling Challenge 2017 and I submitted my application not knowing if I will be able to do it.

I was under the care of Dr. Kirill Micallef Stafrace and he recommended me to use a mountain bike as the road bike was more strenuous on the area where I had my injury. One of the Alive Committee members, Miriam Abela Orland had an extra mountain bike and she offered me to try it out. I was reluctant at first but when we first went together for a ride I felt no pain at all and we even cycled down to Ghar Lapsi. It was a blessing for me as then after a couple of weeks I decided to buy my own mountain bike. Months of training and my back pain disappeared. I owe this to Alive.

6. Michael, the title says it all: "Staying Alive!" It's a pun of words expressing the two reasons behind the title. Staying Alive by combating the cancer and Staying Alive cause the training leading to the Cycling Challenge is a killer too. Having said that, you are in full swing preparing for your first experience to the Ironman 2019 at Cork, Ireland. These challenges are definitely not to be taken unless you are well prepared both mentally and physically. Both challenges entail countless hours of physical exertion and this leaves its toll. How are you preparing for these challenges? Are you used to training solo for hours? What are your feelings?

Oh the Ironman! I think my friends all know about this with my famous hash tag #roadtocorkcity! This was an idea that I had when I started triathlon but then shelved when I decided to focus only on running and the Alive Cycling Challenge. But somehow last year another member of my team during the challenge was talking with me for a long time on his experience at an Ironman event. After long discussions we even devised a plan for this year together and the idea was to give it a shot for the Barcelona event which happens in October. But in August I realised how hard it is the commitment to train for very long hours in the heat of summer and eventually decided to give it a try for the first full Ironman distance happening in Ireland.

Since September I started focusing my training once again over the three sports disciplines of triathlon. Due to my commitments I found it hard to fit into a training schedule of a local coach as I had started training with Team Fabio. Eventually, I did some research and with some advice from close friends I decided to follow a program which was available online which gave me a 32 week plan leading up to race day.

Now I am less than 8 weeks from the big day which will be on 23rd June. Now I am into the last phase where distances and sessions get long and take a lot of your energy. Due to my work schedule and commitments I train alone which makes it even more challenging. Thank God I am supported by an amazing family and some close friends which are helping me to pass through this phase. At the moment I am getting mixed feelings as when it's time to wake up to do a training session I ask myself 'But why am I doing this?'. But then I finish off a training session and get pumped again and say to myself 'Let's do this'. In fact solo training I find it useful to be able to train myself mentally which will be needed when the race gets tough and might get the feeling of throwing in the towel. Nonetheless, at times I do have the opportunity to do a ride or a run with close friends which is also helpful as you push each other's limits especially during an intensive session.

The event in itself will happen in the County of Cork in Ireland. We will be having an open sea swim of 3.8km, followed by a 180km bike segment with an approximate elevation of 1,800m and then a 42.2km run around the old town of Youghal. My primary aim is to cross that finish line and hear those magic words: Michael You're an Ironman! Based on my training and the bike route (which happens to be quite tough) I am predicting that it will take me around 12 to 14 hours! Whatever happens I will give it my best shot and hopefully in the bike and running segment I can make up for the time I loose in the swimming segment which is beyond any doubt my weakest link.

7. Michael, what really surprises me is that you are insatiable. You are eager for more. You don't simply cycle for just Olympic distances, but you went abroad to cover over a thousand kilometres not once, not twice but now for the third time. To my knowledge, you never ran a Marathon so far and yet you are doing the Ironman which challenge finishes with a 42.2 run! You don't simple cycle, but you are an active member of the Alive Charity Foundation, you are not happy with just an appearance but aim for a main role in the Good Friday's pageants, you don't simply play an instrument, but you kept pursuing the right instrument.  This may look pretentious to many until one knows what all this entails. For sure, you don't feel at ease with the comfy zone! You want to pasture new adventures and test your limits. Am sure, you can illuminate us further in all this.

When people ask me is this your first Ironman? I answer, my first and last! And I really mean it. A lot get hooked onto going into such events but the financial and training regime that is needed to complete such events is enormous. Once I tick off the bucket list this race, I want to focus again on refining and improving my running, which as I said before it is where I feel at home. I just want to enjoy sports eventually. Besides, I also want to dedicate my efforts and energy towards Alive Charity Foundation as I hopefully want to be able to leave an impact on other people's life. Hopefully, we can continue to raise funds to find better solutions for patients suffering from Cancer.

I'm not the first one to do an Ironman event and will not be the last one but to keep up with two growing children, work and all other things life throws at you is very difficult. In my sporting career I rarely brought a trophy or made headlines with my results but as my close friends and relatives can vouch, my commitment and determination are second to none. I also want to take this opportunity to thank EIE European Institute of Education for being my sponsor in pursuing the Ironman Challenge.

8. Michael, defining you as Altruistic is almost an understatement. When I see a person of your calibre who eagers to compete for personal fulfilment and yet he still finds time and energy for a good cause, it beggars great respect. Being on board of the Alive Cycling Foundation carries a lot of responsibility and have to make time for it.  As you said the organising body is an NGO and hence a Voluntary Organisation. For this challenge, apart from preparing to cycle for countless hours every single day you need to raise funds to the cause. How difficult it is to collect money, considering that the people on the island is continuously asked to be generous and donate money all year round? What is the sum asked by the Alive Foundation from each member for participation?

As I said before I started involving myself in Alive due to a back injury. In fact, the biggest challenge we face is to collection donations and find supporting sponsors to raise the necessary funds. Each participant is asked to collect a minimum of €2500. Besides this one needs to prepare for the physical challenge itself. It's not easy as one needs to be prepared to cycle all those kilometres and endless hours sitting on the bike saddle. As our foundation is one of the many organisations which aim to collect funds for a philanthropic cause we face also the challenge to collect the necessary funds. As a foundation we try all avenues and also encourage the participants to be creative by organising fundraising events. I must say that in general we find great response and support from the general public and companies who help us raise the necessary funds to direct towards Cancer research within the University of Malta. But we can never stop on what we managed to do in the past. We always have to continue working hard to ensure that we provide our researchers with the right tools and funds to reach our goals. Anyone who is interested to support do not hesitate to contact me through my facebook profile or that of Alive Charity Foundation (@AliveCharityFoundation)

Finally, I hope that these few words and life experiences I shared with you today can be a motivating factor for others who find all sorts of excuses not to do any sport activity.

Michael, you are by far a multi tasker but above all an inborn doer. Many can embark on different adventures without finishing them. So far, you have proved to be a great finisher too. Go and prove us all right in your forthcoming challenges. You worked hard for it, time to reap!

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