Sunday, October 2, 2022

Arif Khan is finally an Olympian, now he just wants to ‘let the magic happen’

Goiwara, a tiny village in Tangmarg town in Kashmir, is a feast for the senses: snow-capped mountains in every direction, woods all around, the air crisp and clear and untainted by pollution. Most times of the year it’s a sleepy village with not much happening. In winter it feeds off the skiing traffic from Gulmarg, India’s winter-sports capital, a 40-minute drive away.

This weekend, though, there will be an added energy, a crackle of anticipation… and it will radiate from there to the rest of the region, and throughout India. They’ll be following events almost 4000 kilometers away. That’s where Goiwara’s own Arif Mohammad Khan takes to the slopes at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

At the Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop, run by his father Yaseen Khan, in Highlands Park in Gulmarg, where Arif first learn the sport; in the resorts that dot the hills and valleys; on the slopes where Arif used to train; his family, friends, those he’s inspired and those who inspired him, everyone’s going to be following the boy from Goiwara.

For Arif, it will be the culmination of a journey he began more than 20 years ago, overcoming barriers uniquely challenging even by the standards of Indian sport. He has been fueled by a singular focus – to make it to the Olympics. From lugging his equipment uphill for two hours because there was no ski lift to missing out on the 2018 Winter Olympics because of a lack of funds – nothing has stopped him.

And now, in the Yangqing hills, he will finally live that dream.

THE EARLY YEARS

As temperatures drop before winter comes to the Greater Himalayas, snow surrounds the mountains and skiing takes center stage. It is the ultimate fit for Gulmarg, the winter wonderland nestled in the Pir Panjal ranges approx. 8,695 feet above sea level, where a ski resort was first established by the British in 1927.

Gulmarg is where Yaseen Khan set up his ski shop, and it’s where, in 1995, he prepared a slope for young Arif to take a first run – at the age of five. “I believe I was made for it,” says Arif. “My father prepared a ski slope at a walking distance from the shop… I get goosebumps whenever I recollect those memories.”

Yaseen’s shop is at a three-to-five-minute walking distance from three major slopes – Highlands Park Slope, Baby Slope, and 85 Slope. Yaseen says, “There used to be a huge rush at times at the shop. There was always a fire in him to do something different. He used to help everyone. He was a keen learner and chased his dream like no other.”

Yaseen started as a porter, and from there it’s been quite a journey. “I have been conducting trekking tours and skiing [for decades now], Things have become easier now, but Arif had trained when things were pretty difficult,” he says.

Step into the shop and you’ll see skis, gloves, snowboards, hiking, snowshoes, poles, ski-pants, and helmets – everything you’ll need to feel at home on the slopes. They rent out equipment, and also provide training for tourists.

It was only natural, then, that Arif took to the sport. The way he sees it, there were no playgrounds around for other sport, and his father was involved in this one already.

It wasn’t easy, nothing was handed to him on a platter. At the age of eight, when there was no gondola around – it was set up only in 1998, for the first National Winter Games – Arif used to walk up the slope with equipment for a couple of hours, for a downhill race that didn’ t last for more than 10 minutes.

Since there was no snow-beater machine to smoothen the snow (also introduced only in ’98), he had to work on slopes himself, wading through the snow for hours on end.

It didn’t slow him down, though.

Seven years after that first ski run, he became national junior champion in the slalom event. Which is when he decided this was what he was going to do for a living.

BREAKING THROUGH

Since then, Arif’s rise has been rapid. He made his international debut, aged 16, at a junior FIS (international ski federation) event in Yomase, Japan, where he finished 23rd in the Giant Slalom. He has since represented India in over 120 international events. His most successful one came in 2011, when Arif won two gold medals at the 2011 South Asian Winter Games (the only edition to be held so far). It was at that competition, held in Uttarakhand, where his friends told him he would make it to the elite level.

What made him so good? What did they see in him, but not in others?

First and foremost, he has always remained honest with what he wanted to go ahead with. There is this trend in Kashmir; the youngsters opt for multiple sports and end up having nothing. For Arif, there was never any doubt. As Arif puts it, “Persistence plays a crucial role in giving you wings.”

Secondly, the training and ever-present support of his father, who would constantly pick the brains of the best foreign skiers who came to Gulmarg’s slopes. “From being a kid to where I am now, he [Yaseen] has played a significant role in shaping my career,” says Arif. “He’s been there like a rock.”

Yaseen, though, would much rather credit his son. “It was [Arif’s] sheer tenacity which made him succeed despite all the challenges,” he says.

Backed, and (partly) funded by his family and friends, Arif traveled to different countries to improve his skiing. Part of the funds were met with what he earned as a part-time coach back in the Valley. This was always an issue. Things have changed now – he has received offers from different corners – but for long, it was a struggle to manage funds for his foreign trips.

The worst was when ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, he fell around INR 1.5 lakhs (approximately US$2000) short of the amount required for bearing training expenses, despite turning to crowd-funding.

That was a heart-breaking moment. He had completed races in Bulgaria, Turkey, Sweden and Norway back in January 2018. Then a race in Iran was canceled following extreme weather conditions. The last remaining way to win a quota was to compete in Switzerland. However, he ran short of the aforementioned funds and the qualification deadline passed for the Olympics.

It wasn’t easy to climb back up after that, but he pushed himself to focus on the process, and remember why he had fallen in love with the sport in the first place.

“I have enjoyed the way it has progressed over the years. I had developed a fascination deep inside me and this is where I am. At times, I got enraged, disappointed but what ultimately it does to you… it literally radiates joy , says Arif.

,[Arif] is another level skier. One in a thousand.”

Mehmood Ahmad Lone, former coach J&K alpine ski team

What possibly helped is the nature of skiing. “It is an aerobic exercise which allows you to cope with stress,” Arif says. “I think where I have grown up has helped me a lot considering all the factors regarding the level of this sport. In the mountains, we certainly like a hard life and adaptation is what’s key in managing stress levels.”

After he qualified for the Beijing Olympics, Arif was inducted into the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) core group by the Indian sports ministry’s Mission Olympic Cell (MOC). For his training period of 35 days, an amount of INR 17.46 lakh ($23,000) was approved under the scheme for training and procurement of equipment in Europe.

And boy did he train.

Carrying a 75 kg backpack loaded with equipment on his shoulders, he traveled via buses and trains across Europe to train on the best slopes, accompanied by his coach and physio.

In Austria, at the Hintertux Glacier, “it was icy underneath down the slope.” In Montenegro, “magic on the powder”. Training in the harsh climates, with the best infrastructure was the ideal way to prepare for Beijing.

Now that it’s done, “It’s time to get back to basics and make [the training] count,” says the 31-year-old.

THE IMPACT

Whatever happens on the Yangqing slopes, Arif’s impact has already been widespread; he’s been an inspiration for everyone.

Teenagers look up to him. Like Ayan Zargar from Srinagar, who recently clinched gold in the sub-junior category in Gulmarg. Like Faizan Ahmad Lone, 17, from Tangmarg, a five-time gold medalist at the Nationals who has been training with Arif since he was 13.

Arif has also trained his younger brother Mehraj, who is into snowboarding and skiing, who says, “He’s been an inspiration. His dedication level is incredible.”

But it’s not just aspiring skiers.

“To be honest, he inspires us in many ways. His work ethic amazes me. When he is out on the slopes – he stands tall. There’s no match to his skill set,” says Gulzar Ahmad Reshi, 28, from Babareshi, who has been an instructor and guide in Gulmarg for last eight years. “Arif is the pioneering force in [Kashmiri] alpine skiing. I haven’t seen a skier like him during my time as a skiing instructor and guide in Gulmarg,” he says. Arif’s teammate and friend, Waseem Ahmed Bhat echoes those words.

Gul Mustafa Dev, who’s the first Olympian from Srinagar, Kashmir, was himself a giant slalom racer. He represented India in the 1988 Calgary Olympics, where he finished 68th. “I have trained him and he’s worked incredibly hard,” he says. “When I was with him in China for the Asian Junior Alpine Ski Championship (2005), I knew he was going to rub shoulders with top athletes. There he is now. It’s a happy moment for all of us… He has been a class apart.”

Mehmood Ahmad Lone, 38, who was the coach of the state’s Senior Men’s and Women’s Alpine Ski team says Arif has led by example. “He has set a standard of competence by showing what could be done even without much support [outside family], if there is a strong will. He has succeeded in this expensive sport because he has remained focused to achieve his set goals.”

“Had he not gone to get the exposure outside India the story would have been altogether a different one,” he adds. “At a very young age, he had left all the comforts to prove his mettle. It gave him enormous self-confidence to compete in top-level competitions.”

This is because there is so much more that can be done in Kashmir, even now. “I would rate the development regarding skiing in Kashmir around 4-5, on a scale of 10. Definitely, a lot has been done, but we are not at that level where our skiers could compete.”

That’s what makes Arif so special. “He is another level skier,” says Mehmood. “One in a thousand.”

“To get more medal contenders from Kashmir, plenty needs to be done at the ground level. Give them what they want and see the difference in the next couple of years. Since I had been skiing instructor for the then skiing team, I have seen talented players around who just needed a push,” he says. “Usually, we lacked in infrastructure, and to see more Arifs coming through the ranks, a lot has to be invested in young skiers.”

Which is why the sport, in India, needs Arif as much as he needs it.

Arif’s ultimate aim “is to put Gulmarg on the world skiing map.” For now, though, he would like to deal with the present, and make the most of a long-held dream that has come true. “I am keen to give my best as it’s one of those best moments I have been bestowed with, for which I thank Almighty. All I can do is… let the magic happen”


Arif takes to the slopes for the Giant Slalom on Sunday, Feb 13 and the Slalom on Wednesday, Feb 16


Tahir Ibn Manzoor is a Kashmir-based sports journalist. He tweets @TahirIbnManzoor

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