Swimming against tide, Sakina makes it from hinterland to Paralympics

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Irrespective of how she fares in powerlifting at the Tokyo Paralympics, Sakina Khatun can be proud of the hurdles she crossed to reach the heights.
Irrespective of how she fares in powerlifting at the Tokyo Paralympics, Sakina Khatun can be proud of the hurdles she crossed to reach the heights.

From a small village to the Tokyo Paralympics, it has been a tough ride for Sakina Khatun, the unassuming powerlifter from Basirhat, a small town in West Bengal situated 70 km from Kolkata.

Sakina and coach Farman Basha are in Tokyo, but before leaving for the Paralympic Games, the duo shared their thoughts.

File picture of Sakina Khatun and coach Farman Basha with Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Neeraj Chopra at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
File picture of Sakina Khatun and coach Farman Basha with Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Neeraj Chopra at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

According to Basha, they have had their sights set on gold for the last four years. What put a spanner in the works was the pandemic. For Basha, Sakina would have surely brought home a medal had she competed in at least one international tournament the past year. Instead of getting bogged down, Basha wants to cherish the fact that Sakina qualified in the 50 kg category.

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Basha, a powerlifter and Paralympian, explained that Sakina had tried qualifying in 41 kg as she was a medal hopeful in that category. However, the effects of COVID-19 meant that all international tournaments were called off. There were times when they felt that Sakina would not get a chance to participate in the Paralympics. Fortunately, she got entry in the 50kg category in a bipartite slot after a lot of hassle.

Never one to cut corners, even when Sakina is not training, she is focused on what she wants to achieve. Basha had tried to qualify for this edition of the Olympics, but an injury prevented him from doing so. It was a big blow, but then the man with multiple Paralympic appearances could devote his time to Sakina. Basha has narrowly missed out on a Paralympic medal by narrowly on multiple occasions. But he is determined not to let Sakina go that way and has toiled to ensure she does win a medal in Tokyo.

The job got easier with the support they received from the government. For the past year, Basha and Sakina have not left the Sports Authority of India facility they are based out of, and the organisation has ensured they get everything.

Sakina Khatun will be competing in the 50kg category in powerlifting at the Tokyo Paralympics.
Sakina Khatun will be competing in the 50kg category in powerlifting at the Tokyo Paralympics.

For the bubbly Sakina, 32, representing India at the biggest sporting stage is a matter of pride, but it has not been an easy task. Being a girl from a small town means a lot of avenues in life are closed. She and her family also faced flak from the community but stood undeterred. Sakina was a four-time national swimming champion, and prior to the 2010 Commonwealth Games was in the national camp.

“At the last moment, I was not selected to represent India, and I decided to leave swimming,” she said.

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On the insistence of some co-players, Sakina decided to try out powerlifting. She was introduced to Basha at the camp, and he let her know that it would be a long and arduous journey.

“He even said, ‘you will have to leave your home, in order to train’,” said Sakina. It was a test to see if that deterred her. At that time, Basha was busy with the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi and asked her to contact him after a year. Nothing could douse the fire inside Sakina, and she kept insisting Basha take her under his wings. Finally, after a year, Basha told her if she could arrange for a sponsor, she could train with him.

The indomitable small-town girl found a benefactor in the Kolkata-based Dilip Majumder, and she has not looked back since then.

“In the beginning, my resolve was tested. I was told many times that I would never achieve anything in powerlifting, and I should not have left swimming. But that gave me the fuel to move on. I was determined to change those negative feelings into positive ones,” said Sakina.

The pride of representing India at the highest level is what gives Sakina the courage to battle adversity.
The pride of representing India at the highest level is what gives Sakina the courage to battle adversity.

That wasn’t all. When she went to train with Basha, she would rarely get the time to come home. Rumours started circulating in her neighbourhood, and Sakina’s mother bore the brunt of it. This is the reason why the bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games is so special. After the feat, the neighbourhood realised what she had been trying to achieve.

Sakina had to put life on hold to pursue her dream under Basha. Poor diet and lack of media attention to para sports, especially powerlifting, made the gruelling journey tougher, but Basha’s vast experience and guidance softened the blows.

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Sakina was tense while trying to gain weight and qualify for the 50kg category. Basha used to keep her on a strict diet and ensured she did not have more than three meals a day. “But now that I’m competing, he wants me to have five meals a day,” said Sakina.

Sakina is ready to compete in Tokyo, but irrespective of how she fares at the Paralympics, she can be proud of the hurdles she crossed to reach the heights.

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