How one girl from Sudan overcame polio to become an international swimming champion

Doctors suggested swimming as a natural therapy paving the road of achievements despite the challenges.

Sara Gad Allah in her home
21 December 2020

One of the most famous champions in Sudan, Sara Gad Allah overcame polio with a strong sense of determination. Her story began as a 2-year-old child when she was diagnosed with paralysis due to polio in one of her legs. Doctors suggested swimming as a natural therapy. Since then, the road of achievements began.

Her late father Gad Allah Gubara was a Sudanese cameraman, film producer, director and photographer-and her biggest supporter. He saw that the best way to turn his daughter’s disability into a talent was by encouraging her to participate in swimming competitions. Sara started swimming short distances and won medals in those categories: 50 m butterfly, 100 m freestyle, 100 m and 200 m backstroke, too. After skillfully proving her expertise, she moved on to swimming long distances and succeeded.

She cemented her name as one of the great swimmers in Sudan in the 1970s. Sara is proud of her participations in cities in Sudan, such as Atbara, Dongola and Jabal Awliya, though the last one was the longest of all, when she managed to cross 40 m - something that she never tried before..

Sara also represented Sudan during international competitions in countries like Kenya, the U.K. and China, where she won a gold medal. However, she considers the Capri Napoli race in Italy as one of her most important foreign races of all time- where she found herself in front of a large audience and media coverage that accompanied the race.

Sara Gad Allah

My advice to all the people is: Let your children get the vaccination against polio. A small dose will prevent a big disaster.

Sara Gad Allah

For those who don't know Sarah Gad Allah, what would you say about yourself?

My name is Sarah Gad Allah Gubara, director of animation-films, International Champion in swimming, and I suffer from polio in my left leg. I am a mother to three sons and a daughter, all married.


Your father was a renowned figure. How was your relationship with him, what is your earliest memory? 

Gad Allah Gubara, my late father, was a film director. Thanks to him, I became the most famous Sudanese swimmer after contracting polio. He took me to see doctors all aver Sudan, looking for a cure, but to no avail. So, we went to Egypt, where a doctor recommended swimming and cycling in order to keep the muscle in a good shape. That’s how I learned swimming, and I liked it, and so the journey began from one race to another, in which I represented Sudan Internationally, won championships and medals, in Nairobi, Beijing, Italy, and the UK.


How do you feel about the new outbreak of polio? 

I hope the campaign will reach every child in my country, so that everybody grows up healthy.


You were diagnosed with polio at a young age, what was it like growing up with polio? 

One of the most difficult things for a child, is to be among other children, but feel different, in a country where disability is a stigma. At school, I used to endure mockery due to the way I walked and ran. There were various games that my peers would not let me play with them, like team games, hopscotch or skipping rope. I would return home, sad and broken, but my father would always encourage me and say that I’m so beautiful and capable, until I believed that, and started behaving accordingly. That is how my life changed and I became more self-confident and began to think more positively about myself and my abilities, because my father said to me: You can do anything if you have a goal and want to achieve it. But of course, I suffered a lot from the negative way people in my community looked at me when I was a little girl and as a teenager, and certainly I felt very sad and in all the stages of my life as I tried to overcome the feeling that I was less than the other girls. But, thank God and thanks to my family, I could overcome that.


What were the challenges you faced, growing up with polio? and how did you overcome them? 

I faced many difficulties at school, where female students used to mock me and laugh at me, and when I grew up, I coveted wearing high heel shoes, but that was very tiring. When I grew older, I made it my habit to wear sports shoes and was proud of myself and felt more confident. Thank God, with the help of my father and mother, my brothers, sister and some friends, I managed to overcome the psychological obstacle caused by social perceptions. 


What do you say to parents who do not want to vaccinate their children or are afraid to do so?  

My advice to all the people is: Let your children get the vaccination against polio. A small dose will prevent a big disaster.


Tell us something interesting about yourself. Something not many people know, but you would like to share with them. 

I was in Saudi Arabia when I decided to be a wedding photographer, and I bought a camera and a tripod so that the camera would stand stable and photos would not be shaky. In fact, I became one of the most famous photographers there. I became a trainer in swimming at King Fahd University, and visited several schools to talk about disability and how nothing is impossible to achieve.


If you could change one thing in your life, would you change contracting polio?

Polio happened to me and I don’t wish it upon any child as it made growing up for me very challenging and I was one of the lucky ones as it is also deadly, and I survived.   The difficulties and stigma I faced due to polio challenged me and turned me into the Sarah Gad Allah that I am. But if I could change anything, then it would be the way society looks at people with different disabilities.