(May 2, 2022) The snow-covered peaks of Gulmarg have been Olympic skier Arif Mohammed Khan’s playground since he was a child. At four, when he first tried skiing, assisted by his skier father Yasin Khan, Arif was thrilled. Soon skiing became an everyday affair. Growing up in the 1990s, one of the most turbulent times in the Kashmir valley, skiing down the slopes and curves gave Arif a sense of freedom.
He turned to competitive skiing at 10, won his first gold in the slalom (an Alpine skiing discipline that involves navigating between poles) and the national championship at the age of 12. He was 16 when he made his international debut at the junior international AP Ski Federation event in Japan. Arif hasn’t looked back since. Since 2005, the Indian Alpine skier has competed in 127 international events and won two gold medals in South Asian winter games. He has also participated in four world championships, one Asian winter games and four Asian championships.
The recent feather in his cap was representing India at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, in which he clinched a 45th place finish in giant slalom — the best ever result by any Indian in the history of the Winter Olympics.
“Being part of the Olympics and competing with some of the world’s best athletes was one of the greatest experiences. Holding my country’s flag and walking at the opening ceremony on behalf of 1.4 billion people was the best feeling ever,” Arif told Global Indian. He was the lone participant at the Olympics from India.
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The Indian alpine skier has now set his sights on the winter Olympics 2026 to be held in Italy. “In between, I would be competing in other international events. I would want to perform and win for India, that’s the only goal,” says the 32-year-old.
How green was his valley
Born in March 1990 in Goiwara, a small village in Hajibal, Tangmarg of north Kashmir, Arif did his schooling from the Army school at Ziran, Tangmarg. “My childhood was simple and not much to do, unlike the life people lead in cities. I was not born in a rich family, so everything around us was limited,” says the soft-spoken Arif, one of Yasin Khan’s four children. Gulmarg is about 12 km from his village.
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Arif says during his early years, Kashmir was going through difficult times. “The worsening security situation impacted our schooling and sports. Living in such an environment was a struggle,” he recalls.
Having started skiing in 1994 in Gulmarg and trained in the basic and intermediate level until 2002, in 2003, Arif started competing at the junior national level. Soon, he became a medal-winning athlete in every category. “My father was the reason behind all successes. He pushed me into conquering new heights,” he says of his father, a mountain ski guide, ski instructor, who owns a ski equipment shop at Gulmarg.
To foreign shores
“Earlier, I used to train for four months in Gulmarg. Since 2008, I got the opportunity to travel to central Europe where I could train in the summer months. Now, I mainly train in Austria, Switzerland and Italy. I do 260 days of skiing a year,” informs Arif, who was the national champion for five consecutive years and a national champion in slalom for 14 years. From Austria, China, Lebanon, Switzerland, Japan, Korea, Germany and USA, skiing has taken Arif across the globe.
Up at the crack of dawn, “It takes an hour for preparation, two hours of workout and four hours of skiing. During off season, I train at the gym for three hours,” says Arif, who also indulges in mountain biking, swimming and running. His other interests include trekking in the high mountains, and driving through the high passes.
What does it take to be a good skier
“It takes a lot of physical effort like, keeping up with your body’s strength, high intensity exercises, muscle building, quickness, endurance, a strong core and back fitness. The most difficult part is chasing the cold weather below 20,” explains the ace skier who completed his graduation in sports science, and then went on to do an MBA from the Sports University, Switzerland.
Learning to balance at high speeds, maintaining angulation, crushing and getting up again with risks down the slopes on icy surfaces are challenging. “There are many mental challenges. One has to remain focussed while going down the hills at great speeds. It requires great concentration, during practice and games, failing any one, and you are out of the race in no time,” adds the skier who won 12 medals at national competitions.
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Travel and training costs alone can go up to several lakhs of rupees (each trip). Thus, skiing came with its share of financial problems for Arif too. “Without proper financial support, I struggled to keep doing what I love. I did not give up and kept my dream alive while living through the most difficult times in Kashmir,” informs the skier. His father put a major part of his earnings into his son’s career.
When not skiing, Arif helps his father in the business, operating a tour company for adventure activities in summer and winter. He also doubles as a skiing instructor when time permits.
Lack of infrastructure in India
Arif has crowd funded to cover training expenses. “Not having proper infrastructure for training in India, I always had to arrange funds to go abroad for training,” informs the skier who was determined to represent India at the 2022 Winter Olympics. He even put his marriage on hold for the sport.
Arif hopes the government helps develop better infrastructure for training winter sports athletes and holding international skiing events. “There are thousands of young people already into this sport and want to pursue it,” he says.
Ask him who is his idol and pat comes the reply: “I am my own idol.”
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