Skier Arif Khan the talk of Kashmir as he heads for Winter Olympics

Alpine skier has qualified for two separate events at the Games and even postponed his wedding to fulfil his dream

India's Arif Khan during the men's giant slalom competition at the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, on February 19, 2021. Reuters

It still feels like a dream for Arif Khan as his extraordinary journey approaches its final destination.

The 31-year-old alpine skier from Tangmarg in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district is the talk of the town after qualifying for two events at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which starts on February 4.

Arif's dream became a reality on December 29 when he secured his spot in the men’s giant slalom at Kolasin, Montenegro. A month earlier, he had secured a slalom quota in Alpine skiing for the Beijing Games.

“Absolutely, it makes me happy to make it to the Olympics. I am overwhelmed, but there is a long way to go ahead,” Arif told The National.

He developed a passion for skiing at the age of four, during a childhood spent in the rugged mountains. But that does not mean his skills have come easy: Arif spends at least seven hours a day in sub-zero temperatures.

After starting at 5am, Arif kicks off with a four-hour skiing session followed by dry-land exercise for about 100 minutes before engaging in video analysis for close to an hour. He then goes on to prepare his equipment for the next day before hitting the hay.

It has become his habit as he looks for every advantage ahead of his maiden Winter Olympics.

“I have been doing this for so long now and I religiously follow the practice,” he says.

Arif grew up in a region dominated by other sports before finding his niche in skiing. He spent many hours on gentle slopes for beginners before emerging as a top skier.

“I believe I was destined for it. I have been to Switzerland and the exposure had led to the new beginnings. In the European countries I have learnt a lot as an athlete,” he added.

The 31-year-old is supported by JSW Sports and has represented India in more than 45 countries since 2005, starting at the junior level.

In 2018, Arif set his sights on the Winter Olympics, earning the slalom quota in Alpine skiing after impressing at the Entry League (International Ski Federation) FIS event in Dubai in November 2021.

During that meet, Arif finished 11th twice, 9th and 10th in four slalom events.

Arif Khan, right, in Montenegro's Kolasin during qualifying for the Beijing Winter Games. AFP

Arif had to become an instructor to meet his funding requirements. Before the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, he was 150,000 rupees short of the amount required for training. But instead of becoming dejected, Arif came back stronger.

“Arif has been incredible. I would count him among top-level athletes. He was not let down by obstacles. He was determined to move ahead and achieve what he had been dreaming about for a long time now,” Arif’s national teammate and friend, Waseem Ahmed Bhat, told The National.

Only three Indians had previously participated in two separate events at the Winter Games - Nanak Chand and Chuni Lala in 1992, and Neha Ahuja in 2006. While the three were given an invitation, Arif secured qualification outright.

In 2005, he participated in the 14th Asian Alpine Ski Championships in China and went on to represent India in 2006 at the age of 16 in Yomase, Japan, where he finished 23rd in giant slalom.

At the 2011 South Asian Winter Games, Arif returned home with two gold medals. Last year, he finished 45th at a giant slalom event in Italy to qualify for the final of a world championship for the first time.

“Things have been challenging and my aim was to always improve in every way,” Arif added.

Arif attributes his success to his father, Mohammad Yaseen Khan, who runs a tour company and ski equipment store at the hill station of Gulmarg.

“He looked after everything I required and this is where I am now. My family, especially my father, has backed me to live my dream.”

Yaseen is delighted to see his son excel: “I knew he was going to make us all proud. I did what I was bound to do as a father. He has always been special."

Arif has been living in Gulmarg, a famous tourist spot, to acclimatise to harsh conditions. He has also trained in minus 10 to 20°C conditions across Europe.

“Gulmarg has been my home. I loved to race there and it never fails to fascinate me,” Arif said, adding: “I am ready for the Olympic challenge, which will be held in similar conditions to where I am training at the moment.”

Arif is hopeful of putting on a good show in Beijing and has even postponed his wedding, as the “Olympics is on my mind, the wedding could be deferred. It’s an opportunity to relish for a lifetime".

His preparations for Beijing received a late but significant boost in the form of a grant of 1.7 million rupees from the Indian government to train in Europe and procure equipment. Arif believes India can have more top-level athletes in the next few years if the infrastructure is put in place.

“In five to 10 years' time, we could see athletes participating in major events across the globe, if the standard of infrastructure is enhanced. Potentially, Jammu and Kashmir has athletes who can bring laurels to the country,” Arif said.

For now, it's Arif who will be carrying the hopes of his people on the world stage.

Updated: January 29, 2022, 5:16 AM