From Wooden Skis to Pakistan's 1st Winter Olympian
Whistler: Pakistan’s first Winter Olympian started skiing by strapping two planks of pine wood to his rubber boots.
He honed his skills not through formal training, but by simply studying other skiers on a tiny slope near his home.
Look at Muhammad Abbas now. He’ll have real ski boots and real skis as he headed down the same course as Bode Miller and Aksel Lund Svindal in the giant slalom race last Tuesday at the Vancouver Games.
From wooden skis to this?
The 24-year-old Abbas is ranked 3,764th in the world in giant slalom. But by competing in off-the-beaten-path competitions, the ones the top skiers only attended when they were younger – if at all – he accumulated enough International Ski Federation points to meet the Olympic standards.
Abbas has not taken a place away from a medal contender in one of skiing’s strongest nations: they still have their quota of four racers for each event.
His is a journey that has taken him from a life below the poverty line in a northern mountain village to the bright lights and glamour of Whistler – by way of Iran, Lebanon and Austria.
Abbas, who in faltering English expressed to Reuters his excitement and delight on Monday, was at something of a disadvantage against the mighty Austrians and Swiss.
Not only was he 96th of 103 starters, but Tuesday was his first race of the year.
“In the last two years, we have trained only eight weeks,” his 55-year-old coach, Zahid Farooq, said after a team captains’ meeting.
“We had two weeks in Austria in 2008 and six in 2009.”
“We have a very small slope in Pakistan that is only 500 meters long,” he told Reuters.
“The vertical drop is only about 80 to 100 meters, so we can’t really train but we just keep ourselves in touch.”
Abbas competed in 10 races last year and is a beneficiary of camps organized by Alpine skiing’s governing body, the International Ski Federation (FIS), to help developing nations.
Instead, opening the door to developing nations gives them an incentive to build their programs and accelerate their athletes’ progress – and also meet the Olympic ideal that taking part is as important as winning.
There were quite a few lower-ranked skiers in the giant slalom field, like Mexico’s Hubertus Von Hohenlohe (5,067th), India’s Jamyang Namgial (4,697th) and Cayman Islands’ Dow Travers (4,631th).
“It’s a very inclusive sport, and shows that interest in the sport worldwide is huge,” FIS secretary general Sarah Lewis said. “It’s one of the features that makes the games colorful and exciting.”
Abbas definitely has a colorful story.
He grew up in a village in northern Pakistan, an area surrounded by mountains. His family couldn’t afford to buy him traditional skis, so his dad carved a pair out of wood.
The lift at the local slope only went up 500 meters – the downhill run at Whistler is 3,105 meters – so he skied the same smooth terrain over and over. He became quite proficient on that slope, on those homemade skis.
“I was the best out of the lot,” Abbas proudly said through his coach and interpreter, Zahid Farooq.
These days, Abbas uses Atomic skis and equipment donated to him through his country’s ski federation, along with the Pakistan Air Force, where Abbas is currently enlisted, his primary duty being to ski.
Abbas has two sets of skis, in fact – one for competition and one for training. He waxes and tunes his own skis, a job the top competitors typically hire a technician to do.
Farooq arranges the training, does the cooking and cleaning and serves as an interpreter for Abbas, who is still working on his English.
Excited to be here, representing his country? Farooq says Abbas thinks this is an “unbelievable honor.”
Can he compete with skiers like Miller, Ligety and Svindal? Sure, Farooq relays, if they all had to be on wooden skis.
Abbas began to laugh, his little joke losing nothing in translation.
For Abbas, this experience is hardly a joke. He’s not a medal threat, he won’t wind up at the top of the leader-board, but it’s not about that. His ambitions are to soak up the moment and gain a few helpful hints to bring back to his tiny slope and inspire others.
Farooq, a retired air force officer, recognized Abbas had talent as an eight-year-old kid on those wooden skis. So he lined Abbas up with real skis and collected funds to send him off for real training.
“Once we saw their passion for skiing, on their small skis with no ski boots, we arranged about eight pairs of skis for them,” continued Farooq.
“We held a trial and we picked 16 so they could share the skis – one group in the morning and one in the afternoon. From there, we picked up these boys and started sending them to Iran for the junior championships in 1999.
“These boys hypnotized us,” he said. “We are so much in love with their passion that we actually just got together and thought this has to be done.”
The 2006 Turin Games came too soon for Pakistan and even now, resources are severely stretched. Where others have coaches, managers and ski technicians, Pakistan have Farooq.
“I also act as a physical trainer, I keep them on track and make sure they go to training...I am the cook as well,” he said.
“And if some equipment is required to be repaired, I do that.
“I can ski reasonably well. Not competitive, but I can come down in one piece. That’s what I did today,” he said of Monday’s piste inspection.
Farooq has plans to add a female skier to the team for Sochi: “By the grace of God, we will by 2014,” he said. “And I hope to have some Nordic skiers as well.”
At 17, Abbas spent 15 days in Japan, learning the technique of the slalom from a specialist.
Hardly enough time.
With no travel budget, Abbas only attended a handful of events each year. Small events at that. He would go to a military-and-police giant slalom race in Switzerland, or an entry-league FIS competition in Iran.
His results were unspectacular. He needed more training.
So, Farooq rounded up more funds, enough to send his star pupil, along with seven other kids, to Austria in 2009 to work with some professional coaches. It was an intensive six-week training session, a crash course in the slalom.
With proper training, Abbas began to make great strides. He even finished eighth in a lower-tier race in Lebanon last March, his only top-10 finish at a FIS-sanctioned competition.
That helped get him to Whistler, with the big names in skiing, going down the same Olympic mountain.