Adventure athlete Samar Khan is breaking barriers and she'll continue to do so, with or without support
Samar Khan says she is the first woman to reach the K2 basecamp on a bicycle. As an athlete, she has a lot of firsts under her belt — she's the first Pakistani to summit the 6,250-metre Burbucho peak in Shigar's Arandu and Mount Kilimanjaro on a bike.
News of her feat was shared on social media and she was congratulated by the National IT Board as well.
She said she did the journey in parts. It is not possible to bike the entire journey due to the terrain.
Khan documented her journey to the basecamp on social media but her reasoning for doing so was more than sharing the news with her followers.
When Khan was learning about mountain biking (MTB), there was no one to teach her. One of the biggest hurdles I faced was having no MTB expert or coach in Pakistan, so I learned from the internet or international athletes I had befriended, she told Images.
"Freedom of travelling on two wheels was the biggest push for me," she said. "On a bicycle, you can explore the mountains. I'm from a mountainous area myself so I really love the mountains," Khan explained. Biking has groomed her, transformed her life and helped her become a better version of herself.
She won't become a coach just yet, because according to her, she's not at the level where she can teach anyone yet. "If you want coaching and sports in Pakistan, you need to invest in the individuals already in the sport and get them to that level. If they’re at this level without any support imagine what they would be able to do with government support," she said, echoing calls made by many people for the government to support its athletes.
"If we are brought to this level and are able to represent our country abroad, we can come back and give something to our community," she said. Right now we're facing hurdles and hardships, Khan explained. "We face criticism and harassment without any support."
How can we think of grooming the future generation and the growth of sports in the country yet, she asked. "You need to invest in one generation at least."
Promoting sports is a big reason why she's so active on social media. "I am trying my best to post on social media platforms and post videos, what I have learnt, what my experiences have been and where I have been able to travel to," she explained.
Khan said that adventure sports is directly related to tourism. She had one request for people wanting to collaborate on work in the northern areas of Pakistan — please pick up people who have real on-ground experiences.
Harassment is common
Being a woman biker isn't easy, especially in Pakistan. "There are lot of areas that are safe for biking for women in Pakistan and a lot of areas that are not safe. It’s a mixed type of mindset that we have," she said. "Social media and education have led to some people broadening their minds but there are still barriers," the athlete explained.
"Not a single day goes by when I don’t face harassment on the road, so street harassment is really common. I once physically fought three to four guys just to continue my daily practice," she said.
Our decision makers also try to manipulate or harass you in workplaces, so it’s everywhere, she said. "It will take a lot of time for female to come to sports confidently. And getting safe spaces is a long way off," she said.
"But maybe there are people like me, individuals trying to fight the system and making it easier for others, I guess."
Khan says she was not part of a team while heading to the K2 basecamp. It's a technical peak, and a legendary one, she said.
MTB and snowboarding are new sports to Pakistan and are considered sports of the first world, explained the athlete, who is also a snowboarder.
There is no support, no infrastructure and there are no sports brands here, she said. But regardless of all the hurdles, she will continue her journey with or without support.
Khan is from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Dir and started adventure sports 2015 when she biked to the Khunjrab Pass.
"I wanted to explore Hunza on two wheels," she told Images. I wondered why we weren't doing anything for adventure sports in Pakistan, she said, noting that usually, you only see European athletes taking part in these sports and challenges.
Society considers these sports only for the elite class or for men or foreigners, she said. "It's no place for a woman [in their minds]," Khan added.
"All of these thoughts and mindsets are quite challenging for me. Sports transformed my personal life, made me more groomed and confident and I wanted to be the better version of myself with the help of sport."
In the beginning, she was very enthusiastic about sports and participated in the trials for the Pakistan team but she soon realised there was no MTB team.
"Officials were more interested in my age and martial status than my talent. They made strange comments and made fun of me," she said.
Another issue she faced was that because there are no local sports brands, there were no cheap bikes available. You have to import bikes, which is no easy proposition.
It took two to three years for me to have a bike sponsored and till then I rented a secondhand bike, she said. The first bike she got cost between Rs20,000 to Rs25,000 and by her own admission was nothing fancy. "I bought a lot of things at the Sunday market," she explained.
Her biggest hurdle, however, was learning. She said apart from the internet, her biggest source of learning was a two-month ESPN global sports mentoring programme she went to in the US. "They coached me and that was the only learning source," she said.
She has now launched her own sports club where she trains people on how to snowboard and use mountain bikes.
There isn't much government support for conventional sports so support for MTB is a distant dream, said Khan. She explained that the public doesn't often understand the sport either and on social media, while she does get some encouraging responses, many people call her an attention seeker and insult her sport.
This is how MTB is promoted globally, she said, referring to posting pictures and videos of herself on her bike in interesting locations. One of the top UN Sustainable Development Goals is biking and mountain biking on tough landmarks to promote them is very important, she said.
"When I do it in Pakistan, I get criticised because the majority of the population doesn’t understand the requirements of my sport. There is no concept of elite athlete management, branding, sponsorship or health here," she said.
"But when I talk about this as a woman, I receive direct attacks on my gender, which is very disappointing."
Arranging everything yourself and doing everything yourself is quite challenging, more so in Pakistan than other countries, she said, adding that being a woman makes it even more difficult.
"If a foreigner or a man does it [excel at MTB], they get praised but in Pakistan if a woman does it, first they target her abilities and say she can’t even walk, how can she do this and then they bring religion into it. There are lots of factors to fight at the moment as a sportswoman."