“I know we're down, girls, but we have to keep our heads up. We CAN win this game,” I said to my team in our half-time huddle. It was our first time not having the lead going into the half, and the situation was taking a toll on our spirits.
But we lost – despite our best efforts, our team was unable to regain its confidence or the lead.
The loss was especially painful, because it was the final game of the Ismaili Southeast Girls Regional Flag Football Tournament in Atlanta. We had to settle for second place. As I stood in line to congratulate the winning team, my mind flooded with doubts and second guessing: What if we had put in three extra practices? What had I done wrong? Why was it so hot out that day?
Road to nationals
Naayab Ladak and Sarah Tharani pose for a photograph with their Flag Football teammates at the 2010 National Sports tournament in Orlando. Waseem Hussaini
Five months – it was all the time we had to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for the 2010 National Tournament. Despite losing the regional final, teams that placed first or second qualified for the National Tournament, which was to take place in Orlando.
We were lucky and grateful for the chance, and we used the weight of our regional defeat to fuel our fire. The team agreed that we needed to practice more. It would be challenging to coordinate at the tail end of summer, especially since the team was made up of twelve college students who were planning to go to six schools in four different states! But we were committed.
Individually, we worked out daily, and as a team, we practiced as often as possible. By the time the tournament weekend approached, our confidence (and even a little muscle) was rebuilt. That we would be competing alongside more than 500 of our Ismaili brothers and sisters charged our ambition and spirit.
That November in Orlando, we won the National Championship trophy in Flag Football.
“We were very disheartened after Regionals,” says teammate Sarah Tharani,“but this victory proved to us that we're a great team that works incredibly well together. On top of it all, we were able to showcase our talents at a national level. Who could ask for more?”
But the championship trophy was much more than a symbol of our victory. It was a reminder of how both physical fitness and a positive attitude are required to face any challenge in sports. It also proved to us that we were capable of improving a situation through our own instincts and hard work.
Young and determined
Zahra Lalani placed first in the Doubles Badminton event at the Willowbrook Invitational. Her school came in second place overall. Shariffa Lalani
I recently spoke with two other young athletes – Inaara Tajuddin, 15, and Zahra Lalani, 16, both from Chicago, who play various sports in their respective schools and have been widely recognised for their contributions. With daily practices, weekly games, and weekend long tournaments – on top of being full-time high school students – participating in school sports is no walk in the park. But Zahra and Inaara do more than participate; they excel.
Their secret? They enter the arena of the game with discipline, dedication and love for the sport.
Zahra is the top rank single and doubles badminton player at her school, and was recently elected as team captain. She won first place in Women's Singles at the Aga Khan Youth and Sports Board (AKYSB) Midwest Regional tournament and the National Sports Tournament. At school, she continues to win awards and gain recognition throughout the season.
Inaara, who started out playing soccer, volleyball, and basketball, has now added track and field to her repertoire. For the past two years, she has captained her school's basketball team, and has won the title of the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in that game. She also received the offense player of the year award in soccer and has won several medals and ribbons in the 100 and 200-metre dash.
“Not a single day goes by when I don't play a sport,” says Inaara. “Even during my finals and tests, I go outside or to the gym for at least one hour to practice on improving my skills in basketball. It relaxes and rejuvenates me.”
Cheering them on
Captain of the girls basketball team, Inaara Tajuddin celebrates with teammates after winning first place at a school tournament. Shaheen Tajuddin
Even the slightest bit of motivation is enough to take an athlete to the next level. Both Inaara and Zahra attribute their athletic success to the support they receive from their families, coaches, and friends.
“Every once in a while, during an intense game,” says Inaara, “I would look out at the crowd until I found a member of my family. They would wave at me while I smiled back at them and I would suddenly feel ten times lighter.”
One of Zahra's favourite memories was when her friends surprised her at one of the matches with posters to cheer her on. “They were very surprised at how intense badminton can get, and it changed their whole perspective of this sport,” she says.
“I can't describe the immense pride and happiness I felt when members of Birmingham Jamatkhana greeted us. Nothing fuels your will to succeed than knowing that you have someone rooting for you.”
A recipe for success
The two girls have not only established sports and physical well being as an integral part of their present, but as a staple for their future. “Next year, I will be attending Indiana University where I hope to participate in intramural badminton,” says Zahra. “I also plan on participating in the AKYSB Regional Tournament again and, inshallah, [will] play at the National Tournament.”
Inaara says that participating in sports has fueled confidence in her own abilities. “These sports have turned me into a leader and helped me grow from a novice player to the most valuable player and captain of my team,” she says. “After high school, I'd love to be a part of my college basketball team.”
Triumphs and losses in sport help build confidence to tackle challenges in all aspects of life. By pushing their bodies and minds to their full limits, Zahra and Inaara have become aware of their strengths and immeasurable capabilities.