The basketball court reverberates with the sound of squeaking shoes as the players surge towards the basket in one fluid move. There is a momentary silence as an anticipating crowd holds its breath, eyes transfixed on the trajectory of the ball. Then, as if on cue, all those in attendance erupt in joy as the ball passes through the hoop after a brief orbit around its rim.
There is an air of festivity in the elongated court; parents beam with pride as the coaches pat the athlete's backs as a sign of their silent approval. There are no losers in this game and it's hard to find a saddened face in the crowd. Volunteers give glasses of water to the tenacious players, who seem undaunted by the thought of the approaching challenge. They have overcome many barriers to reach this stage.
These are Pakistan's Special Olympics heroes.
The 55-member strong team, 43 males, 12 females, is participating in the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles, America, the biggest sporting event for those with intellectual disabilities.
The contingent, to be accompanied by a 22-member team of support staff, gathered for exhibition matches at the Benazir Sports Complex for a press meet. Enthused by the media coverage and eagerly waiting for their turn to talk in front of the camera, it is almost impossible to distinguish the players as ‘special’ athletes. They have no doubt they will return with a rich haul of medals for Pakistan.
“We will win it this time,” says Farah Vohra, Pakistan's star swimmer and torch bearer from the Asia-Pacific region at the 2011 Games in Athens.
This will be the seventh time that the country is participating in the World Games under the mentorship of Special Olympics Pakistan (SOP) which is a non-governmental organisation that has been representing Pakistan in international Olympics since 1991.
Pakistan bagged as many as 59 medals in the last edition of the games, raising the bar considerably for athletes this year.
The participants went through stringent training sessions with five training camps held over the past six months, each 15 days in duration across major cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.
The multi-city training program was part of an exercise to prepare the athletes for a long stay away from home.
“The children stay in these camps, so that we are able to evaluate their behaviour and they are able to adjust to living without their families,” says Daniyal Alvi, coordinator of SOP’s Youth Activation Program.
For many of the athletes, it will be the first time travelling abroad without family supervision but a thoughtful regime has been a major confidence-booster.
For the families, though, the prospect of sending their children overseas has been overwhelming, evoking feelings of happiness and nervousness.
“My child went for training across Pakistan all alone and is now in the USA for the first time. We can all see his transition to a more mature and independent person. I couldn’t be more proud,” says Irshad Ahmed, father of 21-year-old Ramil Irshad who will be fighting for gold in the 200-metre race at the Olympics.
“He was taught everything here; activities of daily life like getting dressed, washing hands, eating, buttoning and basic etiquette,” explains Irshad, beaming as he watches Ramil talk confidently about his past achievements of winning a silver and gold medal in athletics at a tournament in Karachi.
SOP has been training persons with intellectual limitations since 25 years and is also active in building awareness about special sports in school and universities.
“We give sports training to special athletes throughout the year. They approach us either independently or through schools that cater to children with special needs, there are around 35 such schools in Karachi,” explains Daniyal.
As Olympics are scheduled every four years, the duration in between is spent in challenging training sessions five days a week at the National Coaching Center (NCC) in Karachi for sports like table tennis, cycling, basketball, football, athletics, tennis, cricket, badminton, aquatics and bocce.
With the World Games approaching, athletes are selected based on their performances in School Games, Regional Games, National Games, Training Camps and World Games heats and trials.
“The athletes must have an IQ below 70 and must be diagnosed with basic intellectual disability,” says Daniyal while explaining the most basic criteria for enrollment.
At times it takes years of training till a member is selected for Olympics. For 22-year-old Saira Ikram it took ten years of practice at SOP before being picked this year for the 200-metre race. Her success is a tale of diligence and courage when all hope seemed to be lost.
“Saira has a special needs father and a mother who is ill, yet she has gone through an extra-ordinary transformation. She used to be hyper, extremely short tempered but with counseling she learned to communicate with her peers and groom herself,” says Nabila Kanwal, one of the team members of SOP.
Sitting on the benches with the rest of the athletes, Asim waves excitedly at the media crew; with a wide smile he beckons the photographer to meet him. No stranger to limelight, the 27-year-old was a star athlete at the 2007 Special Olympics in China, bagging two silver medals in 400 metre race and long jump.
Diagnosed with autism at the age of three, Asim joined SOP 20 years ago, but his love for sports was discovered much earlier.
“A doctor at Al-Shifa hospital told us to get karyotyping blood test done that is what helped in diagnosing him with autism,” Tehmina Azim, Asim's mother, says.
She recalls the first time Asim was brought near a pool.
“He used to be scared of dipping his feet in the water; he would run away.”
But after a bit of training, he ended up competing with regular athletes.
“Asim’s father is in the air force so a swimming coach made him compete with cadets once, and he ended up winning fourth position in that race.”
Nobody at the aquatics centre could tell Asim was a special needs child; it was only when they discovered he had speech difficulty that they realised he had some limitations.
“When he was called on the stage to take his prize, he was asked to say a few words. He couldn’t speak because of a speech difficulty. Everybody asked me why he couldn’t speak.”
But Asim's participation in the Olympics dramatically changed his personality.
“It was Ramzan and iftari time when we heard the news that he had won a medal at the 2007 Olympics. A channel ran the ticker with his name and we couldn’t believe it,” Tehmina says, her face lighting up at the memory.
Asim pitches in at the mention of the 2007 Games, claiming that he had met Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger who had come in especially to meet the athletes. It was a a life-changing experience for him.
The family couldn’t wait for his return; it was a grand affair at the airport.
“We were all cheering for him when he arrived, everybody was so proud. He was a completely changed person after that; we could see he had undergone massive growth,” reminiscences Tehmina.
Along with Asim, Tehmina has been an active participant in SOP's team. She has been working as a Global Family Leader, Asia-Pacific region, which deals with training families on how to establish better engagement and understanding with their special child.
She feels it’s integral for all family members to be present at these occasions for building the child’s morale.
Apart from his love for athletics, Asim works at Dan Pak food factory which deals with packaging sweets that earns him Rs 10,000 monthly. “He found a girl at the factory that he likes and he wants to get married right after the Olympics,” laughs Tehmina.
“Meet our star athlete,” is the introduction we get before meeting Farah Vohra, the 22-year-old who created a name for herself in aquatics at a very young age.
There seems to be nothing that Farah has missed out on; she participated in the Swimming Championship at the 2011 World Games, National Games, Swimming Championship at Karachi Club, City Games, Friendly Games in Ludhiana, India, Sindh Women Championship, the list is endless.
A smiling Farah looks down shyly at the mention of these wins, but it only takes a few seconds to break the ice with her. Soon, the swimmer initiates the conversation by telling us to visit her website which has “more details of her achievements.”
Farah started swimming as early as 12 years of age at the Karachi Club, her comfort in the water made it evident that she was destined for greatness in the pool.
It is often said that people who have restricted abilities display an augmented level of skills in other areas. For Farah, it was no different.
Born with Down’s Syndrome, Farah has overcome her limitations to make way for a record-breaking career in aquatics. She became the youngest member among all participants in the swimming competition at the 2011 Special Olympics in Athens.
‘Let me win but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt’ is a slogan that SOP has built upon. Farah frequently repeats this line like a mantra for this is what she has believed in all her life.
“I know that we can win this year as well,” says a high-spirited Farah. Unlike many of the players, it is not her first time abroad. She shares candidly about her experience abroad, making new friends and having roommates.
She mentions humorously how her mother had strictly told her to be careful about the drinks being offered.
“She told me to only have juice and water, and I only had that,” says Farah obediently, pointing to her mother who stood at a distance, smiling at her from time to time. “You can speak to her too if you want to know more about me.”
But Farah seemed to have all the answers.
She has not only excelled in swimming but is now working as a teacher’s assistant for children with Down’s Syndrome at the International School of Studies in Karachi, where she completed her Matric.
“I teach them English, Urdu and Math and honestly at times it gets very difficult to control the kids,” says Farah, matter-of-factly.
What does the future hold for this energetic youth?
“I will keep taking part in further competitions and travel to different countries.”
For Farah, there are no limits.
As the orange ball swooshes through the net, 20-year-old Hamza smiles, satisfied with the result.
The slim athlete who got his basic schooling at the Institute of Behavioral Psychology, is now in senior two, which is the second of five senior classes.
“The doctor thought Hamza had epilepsy when he was born, but he showed none of the symptoms so we sent him to an O level school,” says Hamza's mother.
He was diagnosed with a low IQ and showed signs of slow learning; but this did not have an impact on his sharp memory, which his parents believe is still one of his strengths.
Born in Peshawar, his disability was not diagnosed till he reached middle school and his grades were subpar.
After diagnosis, the administration agreed to let him study at the same school, but a resource teacher was assigned to help him individually.
Seeing no considerable improvement in his learning skills, his parents then sent him to the IBP School where he discovered his talent in playing basketball.
“I have seen a vast improvement in his body language and communication skills. It won't be incorrect to attribute it all to the coaches and caretakers at the camp, especially Ms Ronaq Lakhani, who treated Hamza and all of the others like her own children,” says Hamza's mother.
Hamza is a relatively new addition to the squad, who had joined in 2013 and with remarkable progress, was quickly taken up as a defensive player on the basketball team for the 2015 Special Olympics.
Among the 17 players at the camp, Hamza seemed especially proud of himself and brims with self confidence.
“We have two practice matches every day, we have been training hard and I don't see why we won't win.”
Aside from basketball, he has done a course in computer studies, and wants to pursue a career in IT. His family believes he has exceptional computer skills and can do extraordinary things with it.
Hamza chats away about the things he has discovered on the world wide web, most important to him being Skype.
“I have way too many Skype friends, and most of them are not from Pakistan,” gloats Hamza.
“People keep adding me and I don't reject any requests. We talk about sports, the weather, everything.”
Apart from his love for computers, Hamza also wants to start swimming and later coach basketball to others like him.
“Win or lose, it doesn’t matter, what’s important is that they will grow and learn with the opportunity that they have been given,” says Hamza's mother, who is overjoyed at the fact that her son will now be an international star.
The jovial player grins cheerfully at the thought of going to the United States, and expects that the conditions there will be better than at home, expecting no power outages.
“I imagine America will be a place where the electricity will not disappear at odd hours of the night; I also think the people will be very nice over there.”
“I love Michael Jordan and Shahid Afridi and follow both of them religiously,” is the first thing that the 21-year-old Hammad tells about himself.
It is hard to believe that the talkative youth has any sort of disability; surrounded with friends cheering him on as he practices some free throws. Hammad is easy going and instantly like-able.
But his personality was very different just a few years ago when he had struggled to make friends and had experienced social anxiety.
“He found a lot of kids like him at SOP and it became easy for him to adjust. He has become bold and more determined ever since he joined the camp; everyone in the neighbourhood knows him now and he has befriended people of all ages,” says Numan Mehboob, Hammad's father.
Initially based in Dubai, Hammad used to go to regular school in Sharjah, before he was diagnosed with having a low IQ.
After moving back to Karachi, he got enrolled at the IBP School and completed his matriculation.
His skills with the ball were not discovered until he was brought to SOP in 2014 where he first started playing basketball.
“I didn’t know how to play before I came here but the coaches taught me how to shoot, how to pass and dribble and now I've made it to the Special Olympics,” says a zealous Hammad.
But to be a regular player on the team, Hammad had to first work on his fitness.
"When Hammad first stepped at the camp, he was told he was overweight, so I made him an exercise plan for him which he followed perfectly and lost five kilograms in four months," says Mr Numan.
Before the selection for the Special Olympics, Hammad participated at the national games and earned a silver medal in basketball.
It is not difficult to gauge the people who have been behind Hammad's drastic personal growth and improved skill set.
When conversing with the centre player, it becomes evident that his family has played a major role in his development. He frequently mentions jogging with his father early in the morning and training under him.
The courageous father has four children all of whom face a similar disability, but his perseverance has remained unshaken.
“I have never thought of my kids as a liability, Hammad has proved himself to be an asset. I know my children may never be capable of getting an MBA degree or become engineers, but they can do so many other things,” says his father proudly.
For Mr Numan, the key to success has been to block out societal pressures and its negativity.
“I don’t care how people look at them I only care how I look at them, and I am very proud that they are my kids.”
Hammad will be going to the US with high hopes of meeting his idol, Michael Jordan. “I'm 100 per cent sure he will be there.”
Pakistan will be competing in nine of the 26 sports at the Games, namely, aquatics, athletics, badminton, basketball, cycling, football, power lifting, table tennis and tennis.
This year’s edition of Special Olympics, said to be the largest sports and humanitarian event anywhere in the world, will feature 6,500 athletes from 165 counties. In addition there will be 30,000 volunteers to handle the anticipated crowd of 500,000 spectators. The Games run from July 25 through August 2.
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