"I am elated to make it to the Winter Olympics. I have given my everything to it. It was a teenage dream that I am living now. I look forward to this challenge - and definitely, I am going to give my best," Arif Khan tells ESPN.
Arif is not a stranger to surmounting challenges. At 31, he became the first Indian athlete to win direct quota spots for two different events at a Winter Olympics, when he secured a spot in the men's giant slalom on December 29 in an International Ski Federation (FIS) event in Kolasin, Montegro. This comes a month after he earned a spot in slalom at an FIS event in Dubai.
Born in the Goiwara area of Hajibal village, Tangmarg in north Kashmir's Baramulla district, Arif took up skiing at a young age. He started in 1994, when he was introduced to the sport by his father, Mohammad Yaseen Khan, who has been running a tour company-cum-ski equipment store in Gulmarg since the '80s.
"I used to ski for four months in Gulmarg. In Kashmir, the conditions for skiing change after a couple of months given the amount of snow and so on," Arif says. He has for the large part, been training in Europe for the past ten years.
"I had been training with some top-level skiers and did this too back home in Gulmarg where skiers do visit in the harsh winters. So, when I was young, I was fascinated by them, and the way they used to train. In European countries, the infrastructure for winter sports is far ahead and when you are with such athletes you'll certainly learn few things on the way."
2021 has seen Arif take quite the step up.
Apart from nailing the two quota places, he also reached the giant slalom final at the World Championships, finishing 45th. It was his first final in four Championships.
Now, with the Olympics starting on February 4 in Beijing, Arif has a busy month ahead.
He's even postponed his wedding. "[The] wedding can take place later, but being at the Olympics was a dream I have had in me for over 15 years," he says. "As of now, I am on my way to Austria before practicing in Switzerland. I am also heading to India later this month before undertaking a three-day camp in Gulmarg."
The training regime is gruelling.
In sub-zero temperatures, he spends seven to eight hours a day perfecting his craft. This starts with a four ski session on the slopes that starts at 5 AM, followed by a couple of hours for dry-land exercising and an hour or so of video analysis.
Arif saw success at a domestic level at a prodigiously young age, winning the national championships aged just 12. He made his international debut, aged 16, at a junior FIS event in Yomase, Japan, where he finished 23rd in the Giant Slalom. Since then, he has represented India in over 127 international events. His most successful one came in 2011, when Arif won two gold medals at the 2011 South Asian Winter Games (the only edition to be held so far).
His approach to the sport is pretty simple -- to keep on going by giving a hundred percent. "Once I reach one goal I have had, I set focus on [the next] and then I keep on challenging myself if it's achieved. This is how it has condensed so far," says Arif.
He has done this mostly through a combination of sheer individual will and the unwavering support of his family
He has previously had to double up as an instructor to meet his requirements. In fact, ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, he fell around Rs. 1.5 lakh short of the amount required for bearing training expenses despite turning to crowd-funding.
That was a heart-breaking moment. He had completed races in Bulgaria, Turkey, Sweden and Norway back in January 2018. Then a race in in Iran was cancelled following extreme weather conditions. The last remaining way to win a quota was to compete in Switzerland. However, he ran short of the aforementioned funds and the qualification deadline passed for the Olympics.
"Yes, there was a bit of dejection as I had put in a lot of hard work -- and again some luck and some bad luck. It's part and parcel. If you want to achieve greater heights you need to move on. This is what I had done to be here and relish this moment" says Arif.
At present, JSW Sports provides 40% financial assistance, with the Jammu and Kashmir government also backing him. He covers 50% of the expenses on his own.
He speaks about how much more needs to be done for the sport in India, at a grassroots level. "We have a huge potential to produce ace athletes in Alpine skiing, but the skiers must be provided with advanced infrastructure [that meets] international standards. We can go all around the world with this winter sport within 10 years if it would get the focus as much as it requires," he says.
For now, he remains a singular, inspirational, role model for his sport in India, a status cemented by this qualification.
Tahir Ibn Manzoor is a Kashmir-based sports journalist. He tweets @TahirIbnManzoor