KARACHI — It took Pakistani athlete Naseem Hamid just 11.81 seconds to change her life and become the fastest woman in South Asia.
She ran to victory in the 100 metres in the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games in Bangladesh, becoming Pakistan’s first woman to sprint to gold in the championship’s 26-year history and shooting from rags to riches.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” said 23-year-old Naseem, who received a rapturous welcome home. Cash prizes worth millions of rupees poured in from President Asif Ali Zardari and businessmen, and parliament promised her a bigger house.
“It definitely is a fairytale success and will take some time to digest.”
Brought up in humble surroundings, Naseem comes from a one-room house in the Korangi slum area of Karachi. She was never discouraged by her impoverished background, but nor did she like it mentioned.
It only came to light when television channels rushed to find her house when she rose from nowhere to success in Dhaka.
“I asked my coach Maqsood Ahmed to pinch me so I realise it’s not a dream,” she reminisced after the February 7 race. “For the first 30 minutes it felt like a dream and what followed is also a dream.”
Growing up, Naseem knew little of fairytales.
She watched her father Hameed Ahmed struggle to make ends meet on daily wages as a labourer. At times, the family had little to live on.
Undaunted, Naseem forgot her problems once she entered the world of sport, where only the best, and not the rich, excel.
She started an athletics career and soon became the driving force in the family, earning 9,000 rupees (104 dollars) a month after being recruited into the Pakistan army’s sports section three years ago.
“I used to forget all the problems when I ran on the track,” said Naseem. “I used to train very hard and there were times when I came back home with my legs aching and fell asleep before my parents woke me up for dinner.”
The family could not afford proper running shoes, so Naseem ran bare foot. But she had the sprint to succeed and was talent spotted by physical education teacher Abida Ahmed at her Korangi college.
“I knew Naseem was destined for bigger successes,” said Abida. “Besides 100 and 200 metre races, Naseem also competed in the high jump and made us champions at inter-college level in 2005 and 2006.”
Her sister Quratul Ain is a member of the women’s football squad in southern province Sindh, while her only brother took up table tennis.
Mother Nasreen has taken pride in her daughter’s nerves of steel since she recovered from typhoid in childhood.
“Naseem has always been very brave. She is like a son to me and overcame lots of trouble but never lost heart, even when she couldn’t win races,” her mother recalled.
“Our relatives were against her going into sport but it was her will power that helped her stick to the game and attain such success,” said Nasreen, whose home was mobbed by crowds of relatives after her daughter’s win.
Part of Pakistan’s bronze medallist 4x100m relay team in the 10th South Asian Games in Colombo in 2006, injury meant that four years ago Naseem had to watch her colleagues run the 100-metre race from the sidelines.
“Failures have always given me heart to perform,” said Naseem, who beat two Sri Lankans and an Indian for the title of South Asia’s fastest woman.
But the sky holds no limits for Naseem.
“I know the standard at the Asian and Commonwealth levels is very high, but I will try my level best to win more laurels for my country,” said Naseem.
“I know you can beat all odds through your determination, and I have done that in Dhaka.”