From a small town to representing the nation at the Tokyo Paralympics- it has been a tough fight for Sakina Khatun, the unassuming powerlifter from Basirhat, a small town in West Bengal situated 70 km from Kolkata.
Sakina Khatun and her coach Farman Basha are already in Tokyo. But before flying off for the Paralympics, both of them talked exclusively to Sportsavour.
According to Farman Basha they have had their eyes set on the Paralympic gold for the last 4 years. The only thing that put a spanner in the works was the COVID-19 pandemic. For Basha, Sakina would surely have brought a medal home if she could have had the experience of even one international tournament, in the past year. However, instead of getting bogged down, Basha just wants to cherish the fact that Khatun qualified in the 50 kg category.
Farman Basha, a powerlifter and a Paralympian himself, explained that Sakina had previously tried securing qualification for the 41 kg category. She was a medal hopeful in that category. However, the effects of COVID-19 meant that all international tournaments in the past couple of years were called off. There were times when they had felt that Khatun would not get a chance to participate in the Tokyo Paralympics. Fortunately, she got an entry into the 50kg category in a bipartite slot, after undergoing a lot of hassle.
Sakina Khatun is extremely dedicated towards her sport and has never cut corners in training. Even when she is not training, she is very focused on what she wants to achieve through her athletic performances. Having been a powerlifter himself, Basha said that the aforementioned quality of Sakina is really important for an athlete.
Farman Basha himself tried to qualify for this edition of the Olympics. But his injury restrained him from doing so. It was definitely a big blow for him, but on the flip side the man with multiple Paralympic qualifications could devote all of his time to Sakina. Basha has narrowly missed out on a Paralympic medal, by very narrow margins, on multiple occasions. But he is determined to not let Khatun undergo the same fate and has worked day and night to ensure that she does win a medal at the Tokyo Games.
Their job has become easier by the support they have received from the government and other schemes. For the past one year Farman Basha and Sakina Khatun have not left the SAI facility they are at. The organisation has cooperated with them completely, to ensure that they get everything they needed. It used to be massively difficult for para athletes to get any such amenities previously.
As Basha neared the end of his interview, he called Sakina over. In came a bubbly and energetic woman, who you would be hard pressed to guess, is 32 years old. The whole time that she did her interview, it was simply impossible to remove that huge glowing smile. It just shows you the bags of confidence the woman possesses and how excited she is to represent India at the biggest sporting stage of all.
However, it has in no way been an easy task for Sakina Khatun to earn this huge opportunity. Being a girl in a small town in India, that too from a Muslim family, means a lot of your avenues in life are immediately closed. You also have to face a lot of flak from the people in the community, and that is exactly what Sakina and her family had to endure. She was previously a 4-time (consecutive) national Swimming champion. Prior to the 2010 Commonwealth Games she was in the national camp.
“But at the last moment, I was not selected in the team that would represent India at the sporting event. I was dejected and so I decided to just leave Swimming.”
But she was still in the camp, and upon the insistence of a few of her co-players, because she was good in the gym, decided to try out Powerlifting. She was soon introduced to Farman Basha at the same camp. He let her know that it would be a long and arduous journey for her and that she would have to overcome a lot of hurdles along the way.
“He even said, You will have to leave your home, in order to come, stay and train.”
Upon Sakina’s insistence, Basha said that at the time he would be busy, especially with the 2010 CWG still underway. He asked her to contact him the next year. But nothing could douse the fire burning inside Sakina and she kept on badgering Basha, to take her under his wing. Finally after a whole year, he told her that if she could arrange a sponsorship for herself she could come over and train with him. He was without a job at the time.
The indomitable small town girl found an individual in Kolkata, Dilip Majumder, who was ready to sponsor her. Since then she has never looked back.
“In the beginning my resolve was tested a lot. Multiple times I was told that I would never be able to achieve anything after making the switch to Powerlifting and that I should not have left Swimming. But that gave me the fuel to move on. I was dead set on changing those negative feelings into positive ones.”
When it comes to hurdles, that’s not all. Being from a Muslim family, in a small town, finally caught up with her when she went to train with Basha. She would rarely have the time to go back to her home and see her family and friends. So a lot of derogatory rumours started circulating in her neighbourhood. Sakina’s mother would mostly have to bear the brunt of it and she would be reduced to tears.
This is the reason why her bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, is so special to her. After her win, everyone realised where she had been, and what she had been trying to achieve for so long. When she returned to her home with the medal, people came up to her and apologised.
Sakina Khatun simply had to leave her whole life back home, to come and train with Basha and pursue her dream. In the beginning she didn’t even have proper meals. However, there was another main factor that really made it difficult for para athletes to achieve success- lack of attention toward para sports. Due to lesser media attention when she started Powerlifting, very few people actually understood the gruelling journey that she had decided to undertake. Thanks to Basha’s vast experience and expert guidance, that journey has been a little bit easier.
Farman Basha and Sakina Khatun make a really strong team. Sakina was really tensed while trying to gain weight and qualify for the 50kg category. Basha used to keep her on a strict diet and ensured that she did not have more than 3 meals in a day.
“But, now that I’m competing in the 50kg category, he wants me to have around 5 meals in a day.”
Sakina Khatun is now ready to compete in the Paralympics and in Tokyo it is her performance on the big stage which will decide if she will win a medal or not. No matter how she fares at the Tokyo Paralympics, the whole nation can be proud of the incredible fight that she has won to reach the heights that she is at now.