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The pride of Pakistan

Pakistan’s Muhammad Abbas takes a curve during the first run of the men’s giant slalom in Whistler, British Columbia.  (Associated Press)
Pakistan’s Muhammad Abbas takes a curve during the first run of the men’s giant slalom in Whistler, British Columbia. (Associated Press)

Abbas donned wooden skis; became country’s first Winter Olympian

WHISTLER, British Columbia – Pakistan’s first Winter Olympian started skiing by strapping two planks of pine wood to his rubber boots with thick rubber bands, then zipping down a tiny slope near his home.

He didn’t learn through training; he’d only watched other skiers navigate that same slope.

Look at Muhammad Abbas now. He had real ski boots and real skis as he headed down the same course as Bode Miller, Ted Ligety and Aksel Lund Svindal in the giant slalom race Tuesday at the Vancouver Games.

While he finished in 79th place, 42.75 seconds behind winner Carlo Janka of Switzerland, that could hardly dampen his spirit.

“Raced good,” he said after his second run.

The accomplishment of being here is something he thinks is an “unbelievable honor,” said his coach and interpreter, Zahid Farooq.

The 24-year-old Abbas came in ranked 3,764th in the world in giant slalom. But by competing in off-the-beaten-path competitions, the ones the top skiers only attended when they were younger – if at all – he accumulated enough International Ski Federation (FIS) points to meet the Olympic standards.

He was hardly a medal threat, and wound up third-to-last among the 81 skiers who finished both runs. But it’s not about that. His ambitions are to soak up the moment and gain a few helpful hints to bring back to his tiny slope and inspire others.

Pay the knowledge forward, like others did for him.

Farooq, a retired military officer, recognized Abbas had talent as an 8-year-old kid. Abbas grew up in a village in northern Pakistan, an area surrounded by mountains. His family couldn’t afford to buy him traditional skis, so his dad carved a pair out of wood.

The lift at the local slope only went up 500 meters – the downhill run at Whistler is 3,105 meters – so he skied the same smooth terrain over and over. He became quite proficient on that slope, on those homemade skis.

“I was the best out of the lot,” Abbas proudly said through Farooq.

These days, Abbas uses Atomic skis and equipment donated to him through his country’s ski federation, along with the Pakistan Air Force, in which Abbas is enlisted, his primary duty being to ski. Abbas waxes and tunes his own skis, a job the top competitors typically hire a technician to do.

His coach arranges the training, does the cooking and cleaning and serves as an interpreter for Abbas, who is still working on his English. It’s all so Abbas can focus solely on his skiing.

With no travel budget, Abbas only attended a handful of small events each year. He would go to a military-and-police giant slalom race in Switzerland, or an entry-league FIS competition in Iran.

His results were unspectacular. He needed more training.

So, Farooq rounded up more funds, enough to send his star pupil, along with seven other kids, to Austria in 2009 to work with some professional coaches. It was an intensive six-week training session, a crash course in the slalom.

With proper training, Abbas began to make great strides. He even finished eighth in a lower-tier race in Lebanon last March, his only top-10 finish at a FIS-sanctioned competition.

That helped get him here.

Abbas was asked before the race if he could compete with big-name skiers like Miller, Ligety and Svindal.

Sure, Farooq relays, if they all had to be on wooden skis.

Abbas laughed, his joke losing nothing in translation.

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