Going for gold: From the Sierra to the Hindu Kush
Special to the Sun
AJ, as she’s known to her friends and teachers at the Sugar Bowl Academy, isn’t too different than her school mates. She takes classes in math, English, and science ” including an impressive collection of Advanced Placement courses ” and trains as a ski racer six days a week.
What sets her apart, though, is her phone bill.
That’s because AJ, or Anmaar Habib, is a native of Pakistan, and with the exception of a few relatives living in Davis, her entire family lives half way around the world.
While skiing does not share the same popularity in Pakistan that it does in North America and Europe, there is a dedicated core of Pakistani skiers who travel to the sky-scraping mountains of the Hindu Kush each winter to enjoy the snow. But with only a handful of ski lifts in the entire country, the skiing opportunities are different for Pakistani skiers than for their counterparts in much of the West.
So it that AJ Habib finds herself at Sugar Bowl Academy atop Donner Summit pursuing her dream of becoming Pakistan’s premier female skier. And that dream recently took several steps forward when the 18-year-old returned to Pakistan for the first time in five months to compete in the Saadia Khan Ski Cup, an event named in memory of Pakistan’s first female national champion.
But the trip back ” itself a marathon ” didn’t come without re-adjusting to a culture 180 degrees opposite of her life in the Sierra.
In the rural and socially conservative regions of Pakistan, customs dictating female dress are particularly strict. AJ and other female racers had to put on shawls over their clothes before being allowed to leave their guest rooms because there were men on the Air Force base where the race was hosted.
Female competitors were barred from wearing speed suits, the traditional garb of ski racers. However, AJ said compared to the restrictions placed on women living in the region, things weren’t so bad.
“In that part of Pakistan,” AJ said, “women usually aren’t allowed out of the house.”
But even before competing, the task of even showing up was grueling. AJ began a dizzying series of movements that started on Donner Summit when she was driven to Reno for her flight to Atlanta. From Atlanta she flew to New York, Dubai, and ” 60 hours of air travel later ” ultimately Islamabad.
After a day and a half of nothing but flights and layovers she emerged onto her native soil, with another 20-plus hours of travel by car awaiting her.
Naltar, the ski area hosting the Saadia Khan Ski Cup this year, is on a Pakistani Air Force winter survival training base in the north of the country. Malam Jabba, the larger civilian resort that traditionally puts on the event was recently taken over by forces loyal to the Taliban, a reminder that in Pakistan, for the time being at least, recreation is at the mercy of social and political instability.
AJ arrived at Naltar Air Force Base on Jan. 28, several days before the competition. In addition to recovering from jet lag and getting in practice runs on the course, AJ had to spend some time re-adjusting to local customs after five months living fulltime in the U.S.
AJ said she did her best to adjust to the situation, wearing sweatpants over her speed suit to comply with competition rules. But after her experiences skiing at Sugar Bowl, the course seemed less than intimidating.
“There were only about 12 gates in the GS course and maybe 20 in the slalom,” AJ said. “The hill made Christmas Tree [the slalom run at Sugar Bowl that Academy students train on] look enormous.”
Still, the competition was stiff, as many of the top female skiers had recently spent time training in Iran.
“I knew that I was a better skier,” AJ said, “but I also knew that the competition was drastically better than last year.”
In the first slalom run AJ skied well, but realized that she was going to have to go all-out in her final run if she wanted to win.
“I told myself I’d get the gold or fall trying,” she said.
Indeed, her prediction became reality when she fell on her second run, but still managed to place fourth overall.
In giant slalom, AJ’s favorite event, her hours of training at Sugar Bowl made her too fast for the competition, and she walked away from the event with a triumphant win.
AJ said she hopes that her performance in this year’s Saadia Khan Cup will show the Pakistani Ski Federation that she is ready to compete internationally. In fact, she’s now got a new goal in mind: to become the first Pakistani female skier ever to qualify for the Olympics.
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Jaime Alessio took this video of a bobcat wandering around Kings Beach in broad daylight.