Skiing is a solitary pursuit. The greatest competitors may use their opponents as inspiration but at the end of the day, even they know that they are going up against a mountain and mother nature itself. And that is never easy.

So one may reckon that everyone has a chance to get better, to get really good – even if they are on their own. But close your eyes for a moment and imagine the figure of a skier gliding through snow-covered tracks with the grace of a ballerina, getting faster and faster with every passing second and ask yourself just where this scene be unfolding. It most cases, our mind would wander to the Alps. Or any European country, for that matter.

But then think again, the reality is much closer to home. Amidst the regal slopes of the Himalayas in Kashmir, India’s current national Alpine Ski champion in Slalom, 26-year-old Arif Khan cuts a similar – if rather lonely figure.

Although India has mountains and snow, it has no culture of skiing. But Khan wants to change that, he wants to make a mark and he wants to do it by winning. He may not be as good as Scandinavians or the Italians but he wants to be the best he can and that is a pretty noble pursuit.

However, life has a way of showing you up when you least expect. Like thousands of other Kashmiris, Khan’s life was plunged into turmoil by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

But the 26-year-old has not let that incident derail his dream of competing at the highest level, a dream he has harboured since the tender age of four, when he first began skiing on the scenic slopes of his hometown Gulmarg.

Apart from being the current national Alpine Ski champion in Slalom, Khan is also the South Asian champion in Slalom and Giant Slalom. Since the past few years, he has been painstakingly trying to piece together enough funds so that he could compete at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

We are all familiar with the adventures of Shiva Keshavan and his quest to keep representing India at the quadrennial event. If things go right, he might just have some company.

Skiing to glory

The majority of his funding so far has come from his father. As a resident of Gumarg, one of the valley’s most sought after tourist destinations, Khan’s father owns a ski equipment shop near the famous Gulmarg slopes. The earnings made from this business were so far proving largely sufficient for the ambitious Arif to make long strides towards his ultimate goal of competing in the Olympics.

Image Credit: Red Bull

However, last year’s turmoil zapped the wind out of his sails. The tensions saw the inflow of tourists reduce drastically. As business dried up, so did the ski champion’s funds. With the Winter Olympics just a year away, Khan ran from pillar to post. With winter sports not really a priority, he was refused financial help from the Sports Ministry or the Indian Olympic Association as they felt there was no real hope of a medal. A cash-strapped Winter Games Association of India also could not do much.

Not the one to be cowed down, Khan found a unique way to keep the flame burning. He started a crowd-funding campaign as a last resort, “I need about Rs 15 lakh to take care of all the costs including my training in the lead up to the Games,” said Khan, who is currently representing India at the Winter Asian Games in Japan, where he will compete in the Slalom and Giant Slalom categories.

‘I saw no hope at one time’

His events will begin on Wednesday, “The past year was tough. Our business, which depends on the tourists, took a major hit. Till before this year, it was the family who footed most of the costs. The valley is still reeling, and normalcy might take long to set in. I saw no hope at one time. Fortunately, crowd-funding is an option that presented itself. I am hopeful it helps me achieve my dream,” he said.

So far, the 26-year-old has received nearly Rs. 4.50 lakh from crowd-funding. It is far from enough. But, it’s a step in the right direction, after a bleak year that pushed him several steps behind in the pursuit of his ultimate dream.

This is not the first instance that an Indian athlete has looked to crowd-fund their training. Incidentally, fellow winter sportsman Shiva Keshavan had initiated a campaign on similar lines, “Most people who compete in winter sports in India, rely largely on their family and friends to foot the bill. Despite our limited means, my father recognised my passion and supported me without hesitation. This past year has been so lean for business, it was impossible for him to help me out,” said Khan.

Image Credit: Red Bull

‘I’d rather be skiing, than anywhere else’

Khan is hopeful that people will understand his predicament and lend their support, “I am the only person from my family to have taken up the sport, professionally. Growing up on the slopes, it came naturally to me. Today, it’s my passion. I would rather be on the slopes skiing than anywhere else. The Olympics is my ultimate goal. To represent one’s country at the biggest stage is what drives us to keep competing. It is with this motivation that I am moving forward,” he said.

Even with funds proving to be far from sufficient, the skier has begun training in all earnest. He spends around six hours a day working out. The training will only intensify as the event draws closer. “The qualifying events will begin this year. To be in top shape and in the right frame of mind will be key. I am giving my 100 per cent to it. And I am hopeful the funds will be accumulated in time,” he added.

By competing at the Olympics, Khan wants to send out a message to the country that winter sport can flourish in India through Kashmir. “We have the Himalayas right here in India. The slopes of Gulmarg are apt to encourage winter sport. But the government is hesitant. India can create many Winter sportspersons from the slopes of the valley. Through my achievement I want to showcase this to the rest of the country.”

Video credit: Arif Khan