Samar Khan — Escaping the Ordinary

With determination, Samar Khan an adventure athlete, a mountain biker, former Goodwill Ambassador for World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a gifted motivational speaker, paraglider and last but not the least, a snowboarder, has made Pakistan proud. In 2016, she had the honour of being the first woman in the world to cycle through the Biafo Glacier, situated at a height of about 4,500 meters in Gilgit-Baltistan. The very next year, in 2017, she summited Mount Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru peak.
Samar Khan is the pride of our country. Hilal for Her caught up with Samar and talked to her about her evolution in mountain biking, how she defied all the odds along her journey as well as her aims and aspirations for the future. 
From braving glaciers to flying in the sky, what/who inspired you to engage in one physically demanding sport after another?
Since I belong to Dir in the Hindukush region, I was already fascinated by mountains since childhood and wanted to explore them. Unfortunately, there was no concept of career counselling back then and we did not have an idea about the options in professional sports or how to really go about it. Nobody in my family has a sports background so I did not have any inkling about it. When I used to take my cousins for outings in the mountains, I did not even know that it was called hiking or trekking and what the future of this sport would be because we only went for fun. Eventually, when I went to university and different arenas started opening up, that is where I came across a week long course in paragliding. It was the first time ever that I was officially introduced to an action/adventure sport, where I went out alone and did an activity of such sort. All the adventure athletes and coaches were there; it made me realise that this could also be an undiscovered part of my world. All we knew through television was that a certain sport of this kind existed and is played by the foreigners. Pakistan is blessed with various untapped opportunities but sadly we are not undertaking any responsibility to explore the hidden gems. 
My perception changed and I ventured into sports activities and planned my first solo 10-days trip from Islamabad to Pak-China border. That trip was an eye opener for me and made me realise that we cannot just hop on the bicycle to go on a journey, we need proper training for it. Planning the day ahead was a daunting task as I had bad cramps due to cycling. All these factors ignited the spark of my passion to attempt new things and pushed me towards adventure sports.
You also happen to be a snowboarder and a certified paraglider; have you encountered any gender barriers pursuing all these adventurous sports?
Undeniably, when we talk about women in sports, it is usually perceived as an entirely male-oriented domain and girls are considered too fragile to endure the social and physical challenges. We get to hear that we are not permitted to go out alone due to safety reasons. When I started my journey, I faced similar questions like: what would I do for my safety and security? What would I do if someone kidnaps me? What if I get injured or hurt? And above all, how can I make a career out of sports as a girl? To be honest, I did not have answers to all these questions as these were factually real scenarios. I continued my journey relentlessly due to my tenacious and resilient nature, although but I did not have a clear vision back then, I knew that I would and could do it. 
I had a very unpleasant journey, where I had to face a lot of harassment, workplace discrimination and the sports officials mocked my background, age and gender. I used to dress up modestly but even then I faced derision from the people from my own field commenting that all this was not meant for me. When I paved my own way, those very people became my enemies and ran hate campaigns against me on social media claiming that she knows nothing and just goes out to take pictures. But with time, when I started gaining international acknowledgment and got selected in international programmes, those people stopped. Even my family’s perception changed quite a lot after a period of two to three years and now they are my biggest supporters. Mine is a journey with a lot of ups and downs and I had to work hard to not only prove my worth, but primarily prove to the society through my achievements.

You have faced a lot of controversy on the social media; how did you respond to the criticism? 
I used to shut myself down and get grounded by closing all my social media accounts. I used to go into depression due to criticism but with time I realised that these people had no role in my growth or achievement. I have to do everything on my own, from trainings to sponsorships, and coaching. It is entirely me who has to support myself and find my own path to prove my mettle. My friends and family who have been with me throughout are my pillars of strength and I need no one else in my life. Therefore, this social media hate campaign did not affect me much. Now, I simply believe that these people do not exist and I avoid them as mere background noise. I stay very professional and try not to share my personal information on social media much anymore and use the platform only for my sports-related activities. 
How do you deal with your mental health during challenging moments?
There is no doubt about the fact that my mental health gets affected but I do not get depressed any longer. There are times when I get extremely aggressive. At times I get very negative as well but then I have to neutralise my thought process that not all people are the same. It is very disappointing to see that no matter which profession a woman is working in she has to experience some form of harassment. However, we are witnessing a societal shift in attitudes towards women in professions; more women are standing up for their rights which is also a very encouraging change. 
I take nature breaks to reflect and recover myself both spiritually and mentally for further improvement in my work to perform better. Thankfully, I do not get affected anymore by all these hate campaigns and social media bullying; I take it as a part and parcel of the game. These things are never ending and it is me who has to work around all this with a progressive mind set.
Which mountain do you have on your agenda to summit next?
I am planning to go for all seven summits because I did my cycling attempt to Mount Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak five years back, in 2017, which was sponsored by ISPR. Currently I am working to get sponsorships to scale the remaining six peaks as well. 
Do you get sponsors easily or do you face funding issues? 
ISPR sponsored my Kilimanjaro Summit expedition; I am really grateful to them, because of that I got a massive career push and realised that I have to achieve the remaining six peaks as well. I would like to mention, however, that sponsorships are a big question mark for not only me but all the adventure athletes. Regrettably, no matter what your achievement has been, you only secure sponsorships if you have a huge fan following and social media presence. I am currently working on it alongside my training and it takes the same determination and hard work as my training. The situation for sponsorships has improved, then again you have to go through an incredible amount of struggle to float proposals, to connect to people and show them your social media insights. The time that I should be assigning to my trainings, I have to devote to finding sponsors. I wish this process becomes a little easier in future.
What do you wish to say/do about the lack of coaching and infrastructure, for female athletes in Pakistan? 
I was selected for the ESPN Global Sports Mentoring Programme in 2018, sponsored by the US State Department, and after returning I started a sports club called ‘Samar Camp’ for this purpose. I conduct mountain biking, snowboarding and backpacking trips there to introduce adventure and outdoor sports to Pakistan and mainly to our female community. There is no appropriate infrastructure and coaching for such sports in Pakistan. Being an active adventure athlete, I cannot pursue coaching on a full time basis or reach every province. I would like to ask through your platform and request all the officials and readers out there to launch sports complexes, coaching academies, running tracks, etc., to facilitate female athletes. Our lifestyle should fundamentally be supportive of sports. We should launch platforms that are easily accessible to girls, we should build safe places for them, for their development in sports. We can take the example of China and other Asian countries that are achieving well in sports only because they have suitable sports arrangements.  Although, I attained a silver medal and it is my third year of snowboarding, I am training on my own without a coach, all thanks to YouTube videos, but you cannot become a professional athlete or sportsperson through YouTube videos; you need proper guidance, training and above all accessible sports facilities in your country.
We have the potential to outshine and accomplish various milestones. Pakistan has proudly produced many sportspersons. There are impediments, however, in order to succeed, you need to take responsibility for everything instead of complaining about the system all the time. You need to take charge and control of your life, and lead your life on your own terms.
What would be your advice to all those girls who wish to follow in your footsteps?
I do get questions, queries and messages from girls wishing to proceed further in sports, or who yearn to join cycling and need my guidance for it; they either ask for coaching or to get them bicycles and take them along. I would like to convey to all those girls who aspire to follow any sport that it is not a piece of cake, you would not get all the infrastructure, equipment, coaching and sponsorships in a goody bag, it does not work like this. If you wish to join adventure sports, then you should be mentally prepared that you need to work exceptionally hard for it. You have to carve your own niche by conducting trainings on your on as well as finding your own sponsorship. Presently we lack opportunities, coaching and sponsorships. Our culture is not supportive towards sports as a career option so you have to make the required effort on your own. You have to be tremendously resilient and tough; you should have a strong mental strength and fighting spirit along with an optimistic mind set. There are several hurdles on the way and you have to overcome them to find solutions.  HH

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