It’s one of those bright and sunny mornings in Ryde, a quaint Sydney suburb. The area has a strong Asian population and not far away, there is an Afghan settlement.
Kimia Yousofi lives in this part of the world along with her mother and younger brother. They have been in Sydney since August and are slowly getting a hang of things in this Australian city.
There is obviously some sort of culture shock. But Kimia has a hectic schedule that keeps her busy. She starts her day with training at the Olympic Park, then rushes to language classes and by the time she is back home tired and exhausted, Kimia gets ready for another day. That’s how it has been for the last three months.
When the family initially shifted to this part of the world - after living in Iran for about a year - they were apprehensive about the road ahead. For Kimia, it was a strange feeling, because in the past twelve months, her life, her country and her world had changed.
When the 100m sprinter travelled to Tokyo in July, 2021 as the flag-bearer of Afghanistan at the Olympics, little did she know that it was her last flight from home. While she was featuring in the Olympics, the Taliban took over Afghanistan and as the country was in turmoil, Kimia, like many of her compatriots, could not head back home.
For a long period of time, Kimia could not establish any contact with her folks back home, and with the situation deteriorating in Afghanistan with each passing day, she flew to Iran with the help of the International Olympic Committee. Iran was not a new country for her because before the Tokyo Olympics, she had been there for training. But this time around, it was a different experience.
“When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, like all my compatriots, I was upset, but it was a bit different than others,” Kimia tells Sportstar.
She is still not well versed with English and relies on a translation app to understand the language. At times, some parts of the conversation are lost in translation, but Kimia tries her best to put forward her point.
“Many boys and girls had abandoned their goals and interests after the arrival (takeover) of the Taliban, but I decided to continue to prove myself and in the interest of my country. And instead of living in despair, I decided to find a solution,” she says, “And one option was to move to a safer country and continue…”
The International Olympic Committee looked at Canada as her possible destination, but that’s when the Australian Olympic Committee showed keenness in bringing her to Sydney. Athletics Australia asked its coach John Quinn if he would be able to take care of the athlete and after the seasoned coach gave his consent, Kimia travelled to Australia to start her new journey.
An international sprint coach with over 40 years of experience, Quinn was incharge of the Australian team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, last year’s Tokyo Games, and has also worked with athletes from Gambia, Nigeria who came for the Commonwealth Games and stayed in Australia. “I got a call from Athletics Australia asking if I could train an athlete from Afghanistan, and the conversation did not even end, but my answer was - yes,” Quinn tells this publication over the phone, “And, there she is…”
Being a high performance coach, Quinn’s first target was to ensure that Kimia recovers from her injury. But then, there was a language barrier. Kimia could not speak English, nor could she understand the language. “So, we used an app, where I would speak on the phone and that would translate into Persian, and she would answer in Persian and would be translated to English,” Quinn says. “That can be funny at times, because it could give whole new twist to what we are actually trying to convey…”
But over the last few months, the Australian government has arranged English language lessons for Kimia. “It is intensive and she is doing four to five hours of English classes three days a week and her English is improving so fast. It’s incredible how fast she’s picking it up,” Quinn says.
Even Kimia agrees that the language classes have helped her improve, even though she is still quite shy of conversing completely in English. But she insists that she is taking all the efforts. “For the first few days after I arrived, I used translator software or translation services provided by the Australian government for refugees. But now my conversation is better, I go to language classes and try to improve every day,” she says.
When she was informed by the Olympics’ global body that she would be moving to Australia, it was an emotional moment for the 26-year-old. Those days brought back memories from last year, when she did not know what to do after the Tokyo Games. “It was a difficult decision between continuing and giving up. It was hard when I thought I could no longer go to the field for my soil and represent my national flag again,” she says.
“But I continued with hope and light in my heart and relying on God, who created me and put love for my country in my heart. I don’t know what will happen next, but I trust God…”
For Quinn, however, the immediate target is to bring her back into shape. “Before she went to Tokyo, she had sustained a back injury. She did not want to say anything, fearing that they would not let her go to the Olympics. She went to Tokyo, ran with that injury and it hasn’t been treated for the last 12 months,” Quinn says. “We are now getting her treated and she is responding pretty quickly to training. She hasn’t trained for a while and she has an injury that has become quite chronic, so we are working on her strength and conditioning, something she has never had before…”
While Kimia looks confident of featuring in the Paris Olympics in 2024 for Afghanistan or as an IOC represented athlete, there are also larger things to look at - where will the family live, what about the welfare of the other members of her family who are still in Afghanistan, and what about income support?
“She gets funding support from the IOC. She is on a scholarship,” Quinn says. The seasoned coach, who also travelled to India when the Indian Cricket League (ICL) was launched in 2007-08 to be associated with the Bangladesh outfit, isn’t charging any fee from Kimia for her training and the Australian government is also assisting the family’s stay in the country. “The first thing we need to do is - get her ready for training, get her healthy and get her to speak English and maybe then we can also look at finding ways of getting work for her,” the coach says.
While Kimia is slowly getting accustomed to her new life, she often thinks about her family back home. Her two elder brothers are still in the country. “I hope my brothers will join us as soon as possible. It was a tough mental condition during those times,” she says.
“On one hand, the Taliban were gaining control over the cities, and on the other hand, I was the flag-bearer and representative of Afghan women in the Olympics… The feeling of passion and love that I was the representative of my people was incredible,” she says emotionally, adding: “But at the same time, I was afraid of the uncertain future for my people…”
Kimia has slowly started liking Sydney.
“I love Sydney,” she says. “I always wanted the best and Sydney is one of the best cities in the world, a peaceful, happy, beautiful country with kind people… Afghans have a very different lifestyle compared to Australians, but we have our own culture and I prefer to live with the same culture…”
While she hopes to compete in the Paris Olympics, Kimia wants to keep her targets realistic. In Tokyo, she had made a national record in the women’s 100m, clocking 13.29 seconds in heat one of the preliminary rounds, but failed to make it to the finals.
“I did not get the desired result in Tokyo, but for Paris, it is better not to talk about goals,” she says, only to counter herself in the next sentence, “I am ambitious, and you will see that in the future…”
“It was a difficult decision between continuing and giving up. It was hard when I thought I could no longer go to the field for my soil and represent my national flag again but I continued with hope and light in my heart and relying on God, who created me and put love for my country in my heart. I don’t know what will happen next, but I trust God.
— Kimia Yousofi
During the Tokyo Olympics, Kimia would have liked to meet India’s javelin gold medallist Neeraj Chopra, but that did not happen. However, she still keeps a tab on Neeraj’s performance. “I love Indian people and I was happy for Neeraj’s gold medal. The people of India have kindly helped the Afghan government and the people of my country all these years,” she says.
The last year has been quite a whirlwind journey for Kimia, and she admits that those days have only made her tougher. Even though she is far away from home, she still follows every sporting action involving Afghanistan and even kept a tab on the performance of the Afghanistan cricket team in the just-concluded T20 World Cup in Australia. “I didn’t have time to visit the stadium for their games, but I followed the team news,” she says.
With just a year and a half left for Paris, things are going to get busier for Kimia and she considers herself as a role model and is aware of the fact that the road ahead would be far from smooth. But the last twelve months have taught her not to lose hope and never give up.
And perhaps that has made her stronger and grittier. As she gets ready for another busy day, I ask her about her favourite athlete and she promptly replies: “Kimia Yousofi…”
That’s what champions are made of. They never say never.