Back in the saddle

May 15, 2022

Pakistan rider Usman Khan has qualified for the Asian Games for the third time after spending 150 days in rehab. His is an amazing story of grit and perseverance

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Pakistan has to progress in world sports and needs to be competitive. This draws interest from international sports sponsors willing to invest in Pakistan. Pakistan is known to have produced a lot of talent but talent alone is not sufficient to become an elite athlete. The spirited athlete needs conviction, especially when faced with adversity. The elite athletes are willing to go all the way. They will not stop when they are hurt but stop when they are done. Pakistan has produced a lot of talented equestrian riders, who came, played and retired. Most from privileged backgrounds while a handful continued to play at the club level. Indeed, this story is 16 years in the making and has just come to the public's attention.

In Adelaide, in 2005, an unknown 23-year-old Pakistani boy was delivering Pizza, dreaming of reaching the Olympics. One of the most expensive sports was funded by the boy who delivered pizza to make ends meet while studying in Adelaide. His dream started with merely 50 dollars and rented equipment. It would be wrong to say that our nation's Olympic journey began by a pizza delivery boy. What was this boy thinking? A near impossible goal, which is normally achieved by millions of dollars funding by a state. Indeed, the boy's idea was laughable, mocked and his own equestrian skills were feeble. There were no sponsors, no government funding and no money to be made. On occasions he lived on streets and would sell disposable plastic bottles to earn five cents. In a dream he saw his destiny that became Pakistan's destiny. It was a pure perseverance and tenacity to move from one setback to another without loss of enthusiasm. He was known as a Pakistani rider and we now know him as 'Usman Khan'.

Australia has produced one of the best equestrian athletes in the world. Pakistan equestrian Olympic journey reached its climax down-under in December 2019. Usman's riding career started at the Army Riding School in Lahore in 1987. His father, an officer in the armed forces, took his son to a riding school. His grandfather late Lt Col Muhammad Sarwar Khan had received several showjumping and polo accolades from the former President of Pakistan Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan in 1960s.

By the end of 2019, after several injuries and financial setbacks, Usman Khan finally made it. Pakistan equestrian qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. This happened after a wait of 73 years - the first since Pakistan's independence in 1947. The Federation Equestrian International (FEI) confirmed Pakistan's entry to the Tokyo Olympics in February 2020. Usman Khan became the first Pakistani to achieve this milestone.

Usman Khan made the Olympic Team after trying for 15 years. We have followed his struggle since his inclusion in the Olympic team but he has not spoken about the hardships he faced in those 15 years.

After the Olympic qualification, he won two major FEI events after a wait of 13 years. Once ranked at the bottom of the table, Pakistan ranked No 1 FEI Eventing Zone Africa and Middle East and ranked No 2 in the Olympics Ranking Group F in the lead up to the Tokyo 2020.

As if all struggles were not enough there was another huge setback in this journey when his horse Azad Kashmir died due to heart failure on the eve of the Olympics. It was a great loss for Pakistan's Olympic campaign. It became a huge financial burden. The Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa took notice and came forward alongside Punjab Rangers and the Equestrian Federation of Pakistan who stood in solidarity with the rising star. He took the initiative to gather funds to procure another eventer 'Kasheer'.

Usman was back on the Olympic campaign and produced a national record at a dressage phase of the FEI Olympic Qualifier. He went clear in the x-country phase but was slow to secure MER at the Sydney International Horse Trials 2021. He was, therefore, advised by the Equestrian Australia officials to compete the following weekend at the Naracoorte Horse Trials to secure an MER. There were wide reports that the combination breached FEI rules by competing the following weekend. It has been confirmed by reliable sources that Equestrian Australia had permitted Usman Khan and Kasheer to compete at the Naracoorte Horse Trials May 2021. Usman and Kasheer soon rose to leader board after dressage and showjumping phase and for the first time in Pakistan's history at the FEI they were going into x-country phase as top combination to win the event. They rode brilliantly according to an eye witness account and went clear until the last fence. They took a rotational fall that left Kasheer dead instantly. Usman was motionless for four minutes and 30 seconds in-between the finish flag. Miraculously, he woke up.

He was supervised 24/7 for internal bleeding. He was referred to the Elite Athlete Rehabilitation programme at the Epworth Melbourne. The aim was for Usman to live a normal life, allow his brain and body to heal, walk without crutches, eat by himself and emotionally overcome the loss of Azad Kashmir and Kasheer. This would take several years. He spent 150 days in rehab in total isolation. This was a career-ending accident, no one would hear from him. It was the end of the story. A reliable source confirms that Usman was so weak that he would sleep 20 hours a day, and would struggle to hold a glass of water. Sponsors had withdrawn, he became unemployed; but as they say when the going gets tough the tough get going. God had other plans for him.

Making a comeback is one of the most difficult things to do with dignity. Fast forward, Sunday, May 8, 2022, Pakistan qualified for the Asian Games for the third time on the trot. It was none other than Usman Khan who rode at the Haras De Jardy, Paris, France 12 months after the accident at the FEI CIC** long format to secure another milestone for his country. He quoted, "Allah's plans are better".

In the background, mentally Usman was preparing. He went through a huge body transformation, was almost unrecognisable now. He passed the elite programme Gapski-goodman "Blackhawks" test designed for marines and soccer players at the Epworth Rehabilitation Centre. He went on to train in silence and shocked us all with the results.

Usman now has two Olympic Qualifications and three Asian Games Qualifications but has yet to make his debut at these events. He is probably the longest-serving athlete in the history of professional sports in Pakistan who has never been funded by the federal government. Pakistan's government has not taken his case seriously.

In Usman Khan, the nation sees its own story of struggle, tears, hope and comeback. This is the time to show our true and collective grit, to make our own Pakistani dream come true.

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