As the flight announcement is made, the girl with her nose in the books looks up to see the other people waiting in the departure lounge collect their hand baggage before getting up and joining the queue. She also puts her books back into her carry-on along with her notes and pen before straightening up and exhaling. Then she too joins the queue.
Until last year this was how Pakistan’s top woman badminton player Mahoor Shahzad used to balance her studies with her education. “It was a common sight to see me engrossed in my studies during tours. But I didn’t want to fall behind in either my game or my education,” she says. She adds that there were also occasions when she had an examination to appear in the day she would land in Karachi after a tournament somewhere.
“I would often miss classes during camp, for which I felt really guilty, but I would also work extra hard to make up for it,” she says. She is aware that some students pay people to do their university projects, though the idea never appealed to her. “I am glad to report that I graduated from my university — the Institute of Business Administration [IBA] — in December last year. I am now able to turn my complete focus on badminton.” IBA also presented her the Excellence Award for Sports during their convocation.
Mahoor Shahzad, Pakistan’s reigning badminton champion, comes from a family of athletes and is the first female player of Pakistan to be ranked below 150 in world rankings
Mahoor’s hard work is surely paying off on the court too. At the end of July, when the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings were updated, Mahoor realised that she had risen in global rankings to 149th. It makes her the first female badminton player of Pakistan to reach under 150 in world rankings. She also stands 125th in Olympic rankings, which is separate from the world rankings.
Asked if she would be representing Pakistan in the Olympics next year, Mahoor says she certainly hopes to, but she also needs to play many more tournaments in order to see it happen.
“Also, not all tournament points are counted,” she says. “For instance, I played in the Commonwealth Games last year, but those points were not counted as it is a regional event. There was also the Asian Games points from last year which were counted though but then they will be removed after the culmination of one year of gaining those points. Therefore to maintain one’s ranking, one needs to play more and more tournaments,” she explains.
Earlier, Mahoor was among the 20 players selected for the Asian Olympic Project (AOP) 2020. “The project helps players with potential from countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Iran and Nepal, etc. I was the only Pakistani to have been selected in the group and am grateful to the Pakistan Badminton Federation [PBF] to have sent me to the selection camp for it in Malaysia in December 2017,” she says.
“The AOP sponsored me to play in tournaments in 2018 held in Bahrain, Dubai, Egypt and Nepal. Then recently, from the end of June through July, I got to play in four tournaments in Africa — in Benin, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria,” she says, adding that, without sponsorship, she has also had to pay from her own pocket to be able to feature in international ranking tournaments.
Mahoor’s father, Mohammad Shahzad, is an athlete and an indoor rowing champion. And her younger sister is Rabia Shahzad, the champion power lifter doing her country proud in international circles. Mahoor says that she has always been very athletic, winning in many school athletics competitions when she was young. She also enjoyed playing badminton and remembers playing with her older sister, Faryal, on the street outside their place when she was 11, with their mother keeping an eye on the girls from their balcony. “Then later, our father got us membership at the Sunset Club in Karachi. I must have been 12 then,” she smiles.
One year later, she and Faryal participated in the Under-19 Junior National Badminton Championship. The sisters reached the final where the younger one beat the older one. That done, the sisters turned their attention to where they should have gone initially considering their age, the Under-16 tournament, where Mahoor remained the reigning champion for the next three years, till she actually turned 16. Meanwhile, she was getting good competition from home. Faryal was also a great player and the sisters often had to face each other in big matches. That was until Faryal decided to turn her attention more towards her studies.
Mahoor also takes an active interest in indoor rowing like her father. She has also won two gold and one silver medal in rowing championships in USA in 2016. “I feel my badminton has improved my stamina there,” she says, adding that she is also a fast runner which is another thing that has helped in building her stamina. “It helps me take quick steps on the court while playing badminton.”
Coming back to her badminton, there were the Asian Games trials in 2014 where Mahoor got selected in the top two. Pakistan was only sending two women badminton players to the Asian Games and Mahoor was in.
Later, during a ranking tournament in Lahore in 2015, she also beat Pakistan number one Palwasha Basheer, who was about 10 years her senior. “She was at her peak at the time and I was just a teenager whom no one expected to win. But I beat her in straight sets,” says Mahoor. “I have been Pakistan number one now for four years,” she smiles. She has also been the reigning national champion for three years after winning in 2017, 2018 and this year, too.
As she prepares to go for a one-month training to Denmark this is one woman certainly on the move.
The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 11th, 2019