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From wooden skis to Pakistan’s 1st Winter Olympian

PAT GRAHAM
AP Sports Writer
Pakistan's Muhammad Abbas, left, arrives for a free skiing session at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Monday, Feb. 22, 2010. Abbas, Pakistan's first Winter Olympian, started skiing by strapping two planks of pine wood to his shoes with thick rubber bands. He honed his skill through observation, studying other skiers on a tiny slope near his home. Look at Abbas now. He'll have real ski boots and real skis as he heads down the same slope as Bode Miller, Ted Ligety and Aksel Lund Svindal in the giant slalom race Tuesday at the Vancouver Games. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)
AP | AP

WHISTLER, British Columbia – Pakistan’s first Winter Olympian started skiing by strapping two planks of pine wood to his rubber boots with thick rubber bands, then zipping down a tiny slope near his home.

He didn’t learn through training; he’d only watched other skiers navigate that same slope.

Look at Muhammad Abbas now. He’ll have real ski boots and real skis as he heads down the same course as Bode Miller, Ted Ligety and Aksel Lund Svindal in the giant slalom race Tuesday at the Vancouver Games.

The accomplishment is something he thinks is an “unbelievable honor,” said his coach and interpreter, Zahid Farooq.

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 (FIS) points to meet the Olympic standards.

He is not a medal threat, and he won’t wind up at the top of the leaderboard. 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.

Pay the knowledge forward, like others did for him.

Farooq, a retired military officer, recognized Abbas had talent as an 8-year-old kid. Abbas 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 Farooq.

These days, Abbas uses Atomic skis and equipment donated to him through his country’s ski federation, along with the Pakistan Air Force, in which Abbas is currently enlisted, his primary duty being to ski. Abbas waxes and tunes his own skis, a job the top competitors typically hire a technician to do.

His coach arranges the training, does the cooking and cleaning and serves as an interpreter for Abbas, who is still working on his English. It’s all so Abbas can focus solely on his skiing.

Training to compete with the best in the world has been challenging, even under Farooq’s guidance. 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 small events each year. 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 here, with the big names in skiing, going down the same mountain.

Through Abbas, Farooq is hoping to boost Pakistan’s ski profile. He’s coaching eight skiers who are eligible for FIS races and another 20 children just beginning. He has a lengthy waiting list of more kids wishing to enroll. If only he had more skis, more room on the slopes.

“When I see the enthusiasm of these children …,” Farooq said, shaking his head, his words trailing off. “We have to take these children to a place where they can really shine.”

No matter where he finishes, that’s what Abbas hopes to do Tuesday. And he won’t be the only lower-ranked skier in the giant slalom field; he’ll be among a handful of others, including Mexico’s Hubertus Von Hohenlohe (5,067th), India’s Jamyang Namgial (4,697th) and Cayman Islands’ Dow Travers (4,631th). But can he compete with big-name skiers like Miller, Ligety and Svindal?

Sure, Farooq relays, if they all had to be on wooden skis.

Abbas began to laugh, his joke losing nothing in translation.

___

AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this story.


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