The coach of India’s unlikely three-man Olympic ski team has big plans for Gulmarg, says Parvaiz Bukhari
THIS SHORT and slightly stocky Kashmiri would love it if winter never ended. For three decades he has not missed an opportunity to ski down the slopes of Gulmarg in Kashmir. Shabir Ahmed Wani, 49, the best known name in the Indian skiing community, just returned from Vancouver after coaching an Indian team of three at the Winter Olympics in February. The team didn’t bring home a medal but for Wani, coaching an Indian team at the Olympic level has been the achievement of his life. “It’s been a lot of hard work and perhaps the most rigorous selection process I’ve gone through,” says the 10- time national skiing champion, who competed between 1981 and 1990.
Wani is employed with the state government’s Department of Youth Services and Sports and is in charge of winter games. The master skier, who lives in Chandilora village near Tangmarg, a tourist resort 15 km from Gulmarg, belongs to a family of sports lovers — two of his brothers are also well-known amateur skiers in Gulmarg. “During my school days, Gulmarg was my second home,” he says. “Every evening I would ski from Gulmarg to my home in four minutes flat, all alone.”
Wani is a course setter for the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI). You name a ski destination in the world — from the French Alps to South Korea — and Wani has left a trail there. He even has a Diploma in Skiing from the prestigious Ecole Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme (ENSA), France. “But our Gulmarg is the ultimate,” he says in his Kashmiri-accented English. “It’s like an uncut diamond — nobody uses it.”
GULMARG HAS the unique distinction of being the most affordable ski resort in the world, just a 90-minute drive from the Srinagar airport. At 9,000 feet and minus 10 degree Celsius, it is also one of the safest with little wind and mountains facing the sun. “No place I have skied in compares to the slopes, mountains and dry snow of Gulmarg,” says Wani, with pride and disappointment.
Winner of 14 gold medals at the national level, Wani has also received the Sher-e-Kashmir medal for sports, the highest award bestowed on a sportsperson in Jammu and Kashmir. His dream is to see the ski resort turn into a global destination for winter sports and believes all it needs to be realised is the government’s will. “It’s not always about money and expensive infrastructure. Yarikhah (near Gulmarg) could be the world’s best cross-country ski resort,” he says. “All it needs is a push of publicity. The Sports Ministry tells us get selected for world events first, then we will support you,” he adds.
There are no Olympic-standard facilities in Gulmarg despite some of the world’s top skiers declaring it one of the world’s best ski resorts. This scenario, Wani believes, can change if peace returns to the Valley, adding, “I don’t care how it comes.”
The ski-man of Kashmir trains close to 200 young winter sports lovers every year. His eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son spend their winters on their ski blades with their father, who hopes to see them compete in Winter Olympics when they grow up, “come what may”.