/ 24 February 2017

First Sri Lankan woman at the Asian Winter Games surprises all

Conquering fear: Azquiya Usuph
Conquering fear: Azquiya Usuph

Following in the tradition of plucky triers such as Jamaica’s bobsledders and British ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, a Sri Lankan snowboarder has overcome her nerves and lack of experience to blaze a trail at the Asian Winter Games.

Despite “freaking out” — and then falling at the start line, 16-year-old Azquiya Usuph took off and hurtled down a mountain at breakneck speed in the women’s snowboarding event in Sapporo on Sunday, crashing several times.

While most of her rivals fearlessly charged down the icy course in a desperate attempt to win a medal in the giant slalom, Usuph’s modest ambition was to make it to the bottom in one piece.

And though she achieved that goal she was disqualified after missing a gate.

“When I got to the starting gate, I was so scared and I fell over straight away,” Usuph said.

She is the first Sri Lankan woman to compete at the Asian Winter Games.

“I fell over like four times and although I missed one of the gates I still made it to the finish,” added the unlikely pioneer.

“My main goal was to complete the race. I’m actually very happy because I’m new to snowboarding.”

Sri Lanka is better known for producing summer sports stars such as cricketers, rather than skiers, but the sun-kissed South Asian island is developing a winter sports programme.

Usuph’s brave foray came as part of a drive to promote winter sports across the entire Asian region, which will host the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022.

Sri Lankan Olympic officials insist Usuph won’t be the last woman from her country to take on similarly hair-raising challenges.

“This is just the beginning,” said National Olympic Committee secretary general Maxwell de Silva.

“You will see in time that we will be a force to be reckoned with because we have people with very good sporting backgrounds,” he added.

“Not everyone can be winners but we’re sending a message that Sri Lankans are capable of doing anything if given the right training and opportunities.”

At the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, tropical Jamaica made headlines by entering the bobsleigh competition, inspiring the 1993 film Cool Runnings.

Britain’s Edwards shot to fame at the same Games with his celebrated attempt at ski jumping, a story that was immortalised in last year’s Eddie the Eagle.

Usuph, a similarly improbable contender, was selected because she is a talented swimmer, having won a national age-group title in backstroke.

The first time she saw snow was in 2015, when she went to South Korea to learn how to snowboard.

“I actually learnt to snowboard really fast — in a span of 14 days — which was kind of surprising,” said Usuph, who has no plans to take up the sport seriously.

Usuph also spent time at a training camp in Slovenia and regularly surfs to improve her balance and turns.

She confessed, however, that when she climbed the mountain in Sapporo and stared down the steep slope, the nerves kicked in.

“I was freaking out a bit,” said Usuph. “I even thought about calling my dad to say that I couldn’t do it. But this was a chance in a lifetime so I just had to go for it.”

Her real ambitions lie in the pool, however. “Swimming’s really my sport,” smiled Usuph.

“I would love to go to the Tokyo Olympics as a swimmer and this has shown me that I can do anything if I train hard enough.” — AFP