KARACHI: “She told me that she would only get married to me if I promise her that I would never stop her from cycling, even if my mother asked me to,” said Muhammad Zahid as he mourned his wife and the fastest female cyclist of Pakistan Sabiha, who passed away on February 10.
The 32-year-old had been a force to be reckoned with when she first surfaced as the worthy competitor to 2010 South Asian Games silver-medallist and Wapda’s Raheela Bano in 2013, while the competition to remain the top cyclist between the two had started in 2012.
It has been almost seven years that Sabiha took over the mantle from Bano. She had become the second woman ever to win a cycling medal for the country at the South Asian Games when she bagged a bronze medal in Guwahati, India in 30km Time event with 50 minutes and 10.598 seconds.
Sabiha has been the national cycling championship four times in a row 2014 onwards.
This was something that Zahid, a national cyclist himself cherishes the most. Sabiha had won the second bronze in the 40km team trial.
“She did what she set out to,” Zahid told The Express Tribune. “She got two medals in that championship, that too in India. I was just over the moon. I knew she would make us proud. I still can’t hold my tears back. I just knew she was special. She would win a medal for the country. She loved cycling, even though we had limited means. Every medal she got I felt I won it too; she would always want me to be beside her.”
While being a female cyclist was one feat, it was another to be coming from a small village of Haripur, and also the first woman from Hazara division to become a professional cyclist.
She lived all her life in Haripur and also began training there, only to find her way to the city, in Peshawar, and then in Lahore to compete at the national events.
She started out as just a curious spectator when it came to cycling, but her interest only grew after witnessing the first event at college level.
In her own words from 2013, she had told The Express Tribune that she always wondered why women can’t ride a cycle like men do.
Her interest in cycling was piqued two years ago when she was participating in another sporting event for her college.
Sabiha hailed from a small village in Haripur, where women are not allowed to openly participate in sports and usually learn to be content with a domestic life.
“It all began when I was in Pania. I saw a women’s cycling event and none of the participants could ride properly,” Sabiha had told The Express Tribune in 2013. “Most of them kept falling, others couldn’t sit on the cycle properly, and I thought ‘how difficult could it be to ride a cycle’?”
But on her way back home she would hide from the people and continue training with her uncle’s bicycle, defying the norms as women are not openly seen or allowed to ride a cycle in villages, with every pedal she pulled only to become the most successful female cyclist from 2012 till the last national Championship in December 2018.
“She won six gold medals in December,” said Zahid. “In total she has 70 gold medals that she has won throughout her career. She was my motivation too… I was just counting her medals. I’m nowhere close, I only have two. But she was the most inspiring athlete to me. She also held the record in individual pursuit event that she first made with five minutes and 20 seconds and broke it again with five minutes and 19. I know that she had a special talent, even at home she wouldn’t train like other athletes do, her training would be in her room and then on the road, but mostly she would train on her own.”
Zahid believes that it will be difficult for him to get back to the sport too, as for him cycling meant a success for Sabiha.
“She was the star between us, but more than that she was my best friend. We were many things, not just a married couple. She would push me to do well too and I was told to be there to see her in each of her events. It was 2014, in Lahore, I remember she was losing a race, I couldn’t see it, so I left the stadium. Afterwards she said she lost because of me, because I was not there to cheer for her. From that time onward, I would make sure I’m there for her in every event. That same day she had won few more medals to make up for one loss,” remembered Zahid.
He believes his world has come crashing down and the people of Haripur are just starting to realise that Sabiha was a star in her field.
“They didn’t know as much, we wouldn’t talk about our cycling careers with everyone, but they would see me carrying our bicycles and show some curiosity, but nothing more,” said Zahid.
Sabiha had also went to Korea and Japan for different events and India twice.
Looking back at how it all began for Zahid and Sabiha when they met on a bus, where she was coming back from a championship in Peshawar, while he was coming home from meeting a relative from the city.
“Our love story began immediately; she told me about her dream of becoming the cycling champion, and for a year we struggled, but I told her that there would be nothing stopping her from her passion. I was brought up by a single mother as my father had passed away, and even if she had told me to stop Sabiha from cycling I would have refused, but luckily she loved Sabiha, she never did, instead Sabiha won her over with lots of gifts that she would get for her after coming from all these championships.
“She was also an electrician, a tailor, she knew many things, it was hard not to like her,” said Zahid.
Zahid was already in Army and cycled for them since 2009, he got Sabiha on stipend too for the department. He said that there was a time when Wapda would want Sabiha to join them, but she did not.
He said that last year, four months before the national championship she had a hernia operation, but she wanted to compete.
“I told her not to, but she was stubborn,” said Zahid. “She went in and won six gold medals, and we had just returned home from Lahore on December 28, she was fine. It was only 20 days ago we found out that she has cancer, skin cancer. She had the problem with kidney stones, but it was never that big, she never had any difficulty before, but in the last 10 days of her life, she stopped eating, and then she just left us. I still can’t believe she is gone. The doctors never told us she had cancer before.”
Like Zahid, Pakistan Cycling Federation (PCF) secretary Syed Azhar Ali Shah remembered Sabiha as a ‘lioness’.
“She was brave, she was a lioness. I saw here in December, there was some swelling on her face, I asked her but she never told me what was wrong. She fought till the end and none of us could even imagine she will be gone so soon,” said Shah.
However, Zahid believes he would never meet anyone like Sabiha again; no cyclist or human would measure up to her spirit.
“She was never arrogant, she was never boasting, she was humble. She would say if she would be arrogant then Allah will not like it. She was a simple girl, just Sabiha Bibi when I met her, but she changed everything for herself as an athlete, she changed me as a cyclist too. I know I will never meet a women as inspiring as her, even if she would fall she would get up during the training and in life, even if she would bleed she would make it easy for us around her. We’ll see this year if any female cyclist takes her feats further at SAG. I don’t think so,” concluded Zahid.