From the start I was surrounded by busy people. Both my parents arrived in England during the 1960s as wide-eyed, ambitious Pakistani immigrants who saw all the opportunities of a new, modern country…keen to get ahead and take advantage of the chances that lay before them. As a British born child of immigrants I saw my parents working hard in their corner shop. When I wasn’t with them in the shop, stealing chocolate, my dear grandmother would take care of me…setting the example of caring for anyone in the community who needed practical help, a warm meal and a supportive ear. And so, I was programmed early to work hard and fulfil my potential. My father, in particular, expected me to climb the social ladder in hopes of being a doctor or lawyer one day – the classic ambition immigrant parents have for their children.
Despite this busy family with high expectations, the world seemed like a wonderful place to me. My infancy was filled with happiness and affection and customers in our shop were charmed by my big eyes, thick black hair and bright Asian clothes. But, my idyllic early experience began to change when my family moved to a bigger town where the colour of our skin was a rare and attention-getting issue.
The new town meant starting primary school and, despite the general sense of fun, it was my first experience of my appearance getting hostile attention with a few negative comments. Primary school was also the time when one of my natural talents was revealed…by a bulldog. On the way to my grandmother’s house one day, a dark-brown bulldog with piercing eyes appeared from an alleyway, it lunged toward me and, instinctively, I took-off like a rocket! I hurdled obstacles and ran with stunning speed all the way down the alley being chased by the bulldog which I eventually escaped by crossing the road and bolting into my grandmother’s front garden. I thought little of it at the time but, this was the first occasion where something unique and outstanding was revealed about me.
It was secondary school where any shred of childhood naivete was extinguished from my mind. My sporting talent was recognised by teachers but, I was also bullied relentlessly by fellow students. My skin colour and geeky, plain looks became a target for the girls who’d bully me both verbally and physically. The fact that my mother would wear Asian outfits and make my clothes only exaggerated my differentness, which had become a target for the massive majority of white kids in school.
I never told my parents about the bullying…it never occurred to me to disrupt my parents busy lives with my school problems and besides that, there seemed to me to be nothing they could do to fix the problem anyway – I had fully accepted the idea that my different skin-colour was the problem. And, they continued to expect excellent academic performance from me despite the fact that sport was my real talent. My teacher Mrs Bell had convinced me of this; she spoke often of how unique I was and that, in this respect, my differentness was an asset, a special quality to be nurtured and treasured. She also managed to convince my parents to allow me to join the strict but special regime that potential sports stars must commit to in order to achieve greatness.
Sport was my refuge from the bullying and my ability grew and grew until I was in trials to pre-qualify for the Olympics. This was going to be my place to shine and I was excited to prove to everyone I was worthy of appreciation and acceptance. The day of the trials came and I was running the hurdles with four other girls competing for a spot on the actual Olympic team! The race began and so did my chance to finally prove my differentness would be an asset. I flew over the first two hurdles and then, the focus required for high performance was momentarily lost to a niggle in the back of my mind…I heard my name and my mind stopped managing my body just for a moment…I missed the third hurdle, was sent crashing backwards and narrowly missed injuring my back. However, my right leg was sacrificed instead…I injured it badly.
Not only had my chance to be at the Olympics gone, my chance for acceptance in the world was shattered. As school came to a close, I withdrew into depression…crying for weeks, feeling alone because no one understood what this meant for me. I had lost the one hope to gain the thing I had needed for so long…acceptance from other people. Life seemed so pointless now and it was only because I wouldn’t want to hurt my parents that I didn’t end it all.
Slowly, I recovered from the months of despair. It was my Father who reminded me that I had the ability to achieve great things, whatever that might be. With this tiny seed of a reason for living, but no idea of my purpose, I went back to the academic expectations of my parents. With no sense of identity or confidence in being myself, I entered college.
So far, my life had been determined by those around me and college was no exception. I remained a target for bullies…by now I emanated the kind of vibe that bullies can see from a mile off. But someone came to my rescue…Toni. She was a popular girl who also happened to have a sense of justice…when I was bullied she stepped in to defend me and for the first time in years, my time in education became an opportunity for connection and growth. I began to get positive attention again and make friends.
The seed that my Father had planted was protected by Toni and it continued to grow as I entered University, nurtured again by a strong female friend…Asya from Yugoslavia. Having been through the Balkan war, she was taking shit from no one and she too protected and nurtured me as I kept exploring my identity and building my confidence in what I could achieve. I finally graduated with a degree in science and business and now my old feelings of ambition, inherited from my parents, re-emerged to hint to me that there was more I could achieve. I worked my way up in a corporate career and proved I was capable of career success. I married a wonderful, successful man and proved I could be cherished for my personality. But one arena remained buried - sport.
In 2013, a friend of mine invited me to take part in a charity walk. I was reluctant…partly because I still had pain in my leg from that old injury but secretly because I didn’t want to face the sporting world I had failed in so dramatically. That part of my identity, the special me who stood out from the crowd was the reason I had suffered so much and no one wants to open-up old wounds. But, it’s hard to turn down an invitation to help a charity and so, nervously, I joined the event. The day came and I joined the crowd at the start, as I had in school all those years ago. I was enjoying the camaraderie of the crowd and it reminded me how much I had also loved team sports in school…the feeling that people were on your side. But the pain in my leg was increasing with each step and made the event a challenge to stick with. I had to choose between dropping out and pushing through…my love for people and sport was ignited and so, I decided to finish and as I did, tears poured from my eyes…my confidence had found it’s foundation again…my deepest identity as a sportswoman came through, I could embrace my talent, my differentness, and let it shine.
The pain of my childhood had shown me that, when others target our differentness, when they convince us it’s a flaw instead of a talent, we feel worthless and it cripples our ambition and our ability to fulfil our potential. You can’t rely on others always being good to you, it means you have to find the ability to support yourself, to recognise what’s unique about you, to protect it and find out how that talent can shine. If you can do that for yourself…to love yourself…you’ve found your reason for living.
My experience has shown me that self-love is the core of success and it’s a quality I’m still cultivating in myself and want to help others develop as well.