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Pakistan’s young special Olympians want to bring home gold

March 22, 2017


Special Olympics team in high spirits before the beginning of the games in Austria.
Special Olympics team in high spirits before the beginning of the games in Austria.

ISLAMABAD: It’s an early spring evening and sun is just beginning to settle over the capital. The grounds of Allama Iqbal University are filled with the cawing of birds and the excited chatter of children, as 16-year-old Sabahat Tariq runs around with her friends.

The young boys and girls are visibly excited. In a few hours they will board a flight to Austria to represent Pakistan at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games.

Over 3,000 Special Olympics athletes from 110 countries are participating in the 2017 Winter Games.

For some young athletes, the journey to the 2017 Special Olympics has been nothing short of a miracle

For Sabahat, who will be competing in snowshoeing, the journey here has been nothing short of a miracle. The daughter of a truck driver, Sabahat was born in Kunda, a small impoverished village in the Murree district. She was born with microcephaly, a condition which prevents the brain from developing fully.

Unable to afford medical care, Sabahat was seven before her condition could be diagnosed and her parents often found themselves struggling to understand her special needs.

In 2007, her family took her to the Government Special Education Centre in Murree. At her new school, Sabahat was withdrawn and sometimes even aggressive. But gradually, she began to take an interest in sports and started socialising with other children.

Last year, she was among the children selected to participate in a training camp organised by Special Olympics Pakistan. Years of struggling with their special needs child with limited resources had made Sabahat’s parents pessimistic about their expectations for her life. So it took some convincing by the Special Olympics Pakistan team for them to finally allow her to travel to Karachi for the training camp.

But once at the camp, Sabahat was distraught. “We had to be very careful with Sabahat, if we told her to do something twice she would get hostile and then withdraw in silence,” coach Amna Baig recalls.

But 18 months later, her coach proudly says Sabahat is a star athlete. She gives interviews and has made many friends at the camp. “Now Sabahat always listens to us, it’s hard to believe how far she has come,” Amna says.

Ski coach Amna Baig is among the four who will be taking the children to Austria. Her own journey to the games in Austria has been equally remarkable. Amna is from Chapursan, a valley of ice and rock, north of Hunza near the remote border post of Sost.

“I was a volleyball champion and also played other sports. I did my Masters in Health and Physical Education through distance-learning and later joined the Mehnaz Fatima School for Inclusive Education as a teacher. I was attracted to the idea of ‘inclusive’ education,” she says.

After coming across the Special Olympics Pakistan team at a sports event in Gilgit, Amna joined the organisation as a coach. While she had grown up with snow all around her, she had never learnt to ski. So before she could coach the children, she had to learn herself.

“I worked very hard. Initially I practiced alpine skiing because we did not know that the event we will be competing in is cross-country skiing.

The two are different because in alpine skiing, the skiers go downhill propelled by gravity while cross-country is done on flat ground, requiring a proper track and more strength. So later we began practicing cross-country skiing,” she explains.

For Amna, the camps have been a life-changing experience. “I had never even attended a university so meeting so many people taught me a lot. Special children need special care and handling and each individual child is different. I learnt to understand each child, their needs and their personality,” she says.

Three other children at the camp, brother and sister Tehmeena and Hameez Munir Alam and Pervaiz Ahmed, are also from Gilgit-Baltistan. Blue-eyed with a bright smile, 15-year-old Tehmeena will be competing in cross-country skiing. “Will I be on the news?” she asks, while getting her picture taken.

But at her first camp, Tehmeena was different, her coach recalls. “She had uncontrollable fits of rage which would sometimes scare me. But a few months of therapy did wonders for her,” Amna says.

Pervaiz Ahmed, who was born with Down syndrome, is also from Gilgit Baltistan.

He was raised alone by his mother after his father abandoned the family. Pervaiz had to work as a labourer to support his mother. “He still does construction work,” Amna says.

“The facilities available for children with special needs are abysmal in Pakistan in general and in Gilgit the situation is even worse. Sports are an important part of special needs therapy and education and we do not even have a ground where the kids can play. For each practice I have to write letters to request for permission from various organisations to use their grounds,”

Despite a lack of adequate facilities for the athletes to practice cross-country skiing, Amna is hopeful they will perform well.

The enthusiasm among the team is palpable. Each athlete tells us they want to win for their country. “They have worked hard and want to make Pakistan proud. These athletes will teach Pakistanis that special children can also be a source of pride for a nation,” says Amna.

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2017