When he was an eight-year-old boy, Mohammad Karim used to wear a wistful look: hundreds, nay thousands, of skiers would arrive at his village near Naltar in Gilgit-Baltistan, with the sole purpose of living and breathing skiing on the snow-capped mountains nearby. “I was sitting at the edge of the ski slope in Naltar one day, with my cousins and friends, when I decided to be one of those skiers wearing their colourful suits,” says Karim.
Eight years on, Karim is living his dream. Competing in domestic competitions is a thing of the past; 16-year-old Karim — a student of grade 10 — will now be heading to Sochi, Russia to represent Pakistan at the Winter Olympics 2014. And he has his uncle and elder brother to thank for it.
“My uncle crafted a pair of wooden skis for me, and my elder brother bought ski boots from Gilgit’s local second-hand market for me,” recalls Karim.
The village that Karim hails from is near Naltar in Gilgit Baltistan — considered the best skiing resort in the country. “People make wooden skis for themselves and use sticks for travelling purposes. We wear these skis and use sticks to push ourselves forward in order to go about our daily business as one cannot walk about in ordinary shoes in the harsh winter. Due to heavy snow during winters, every boy and girl in Naltar is a natural skier,” Karim points out.
But Karim had loftier goals than just getting from place to place. He longed to be a skier who would win local competitions. “When I first started eight years ago, winters had set in and snow had already covered the valley. School was shut because of winter vacations, leaving me with ample time to practice,” he says.
Even though Karim was not allowed to step on to the ski track during competitions held in Naltar, he practised by skiing along the edge of the track. He got a lot of practice this way, which in turn brought self-confidence and local accolades.
“My dream to participate in the winter games in Naltar came true when I was selected to participate in the Children’s Cup, which I won the first time around and have been winning continuously. Every year, I clinch the first position in various winter competitions, including the national championship,” Karim said proudly.
His friends were used to his boasting about winning the children’s skiing competition, but even young Karim wouldn’t have imagined that there would be a day when he would represent Pakistan at the Winter Olympics that commence on February 7.
“You cannot even begin to imagine how I felt on being informed by the Ski Federation of Pakistan (SFP) that I had qualified for participation in the forthcoming Winter Games, in the giant slalom category. I have come a long way from my handmade wooden skies and second-hand boots,” he says.
The journey thus far hasn’t been an easy hike. Karim says that he had to practice day and night to reach this stage, and it would not have happened without the help and support of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the SFP, who arranged professional coaching for him to realise his potential.
“I still remember the day when the PAF-backed coaches noticed me skiing with my wooden skis at the edge of the slope in Naltar. That was when they approached my elder brothers, Sher Afzal, Abdul Baqi and Iqbal, to ask them if they’d allow them to coach me,” he says.
Karim’s brothers — all of whom ski for their department teams in the Army, PAF and the Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts respectively — readily agreed. But their father wasn’t too happy about this arrangement.
“My father is a retired employee of the Forest Department. He is more interested in my education rather than my skiing as he couldn’t afford to educate my brothers but is committed to providing me with a good education,” Karim says. “But I have assured him that my practice will not affect my education because schools are closed for winter holidays during the practicing season anyway. Then my brothers also support me on this so my father is fine with it, for now,” he says.
Karim knows that he has been lucky. He also knows that there are other talented kids like him who also deserve a chance. “There should be a talent hunt programme introduced in departments and other government organisations. It would also help if the government took the responsibility the education of the talented lot. This way Pakistan can make ski teams and skiers who are able to compete in all types of winter sports in the Winter Olympics. Construction of metalled roads in Naltar can also help bring the attention iof the rest of the world here,” says Karim.
What Karim will miss at the Winter Olympics is his friend, the legendary Mohammad Abbas, who represented Pakistan at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. “Initially, it was supposed to be two of us but my team-mate, Abbas Saheb, could not qualify. Therefore I am the lone one from my country. Abbas Saheb’s failure to qualify makes me sad. He has experience. I miss his support,” he says.
Karim’s coaches are currently trying to dampen down expectations of a medal at the Winter Olympics, but Karim thinks he has the spark to pull off a miracle. “I have practiced on various snow slopes around the world, and gained a lot of experience. I have had good practice sessions in Turkey, Iran, Australia and Italy. Now I am eagerly waiting to participate at the Winter Olympics. It will be like a dream come true for me,” he says excitedly.
“I am sure I will be able to make my mark there,” Karim adds gleefully.