She Hits It Like a Champion! An interview with Mahoor Shahzad

A conversation with Mahoor Shahzad — Women’s Singles National Champion and first ever badminton player to represent Pakistan at the Olympics.

Ranked among the top 133 women players in the world, the 25-year-old Mahoor Shahzad, is the first ever badminton player to have the honour of representing Pakistan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She was also Pakistan’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony.

She is also the first female badminton player from Pakistan to reach under 150 in the Badminton World Federation rankings. A national Badminton champion of Pakistan for five consecutive years, Mahoor Shahzad talks exclusively to Hilal for Her about her achievements and aspirations.
How did you begin your career and who is your biggest supporter and mentor?
Fortunately, luck has always been on my side and I started my professional badminton career at the tender age of only thirteen and became the Under-19 National Junior Champion. Although, I faced many obstacles during my career, but my father has always been my biggest support; from accompanying me on international tours, to being my trainer every morning, to strategically guiding me in my matches, and a lot more. He continues to take it as his duty to train me whenever my coach is unavailable. 
How do you balance both your passion and studies?
It has truly been a challenge for me to take my passion alongside my studies. I am presently enrolled in a fully funded scholarship in postgraduate certification by Badminton World Federation (BWF) in International Sports Management from the University of London. 
I was a good student so I used to study just before the exams and get good results. I got 6A*s and 2As in O Levels and 2A*s and 2As in A Levels. When I was in Institute of Business Administration (IBA), my degree (Accounting and Finance) was very tough, so there have been times when I studied at the airports while standing in immigration queues and have spent nights doing assignments in camps.
I would say my strength has been my prioritization and time management skills because I timed my schedule accordingly by selecting the right thing at the right time. I would like to give due credit to my university, IBA, that stood by me and provided every support possible to match my training schedule. They even allowed me to retake my examinations if any competition clashed with it. As a result, all the additional burden was taken care of and I could pursue my passion and studies simultaneously.
What is the fitness routine that you follow to endure such high intensity matches? What does your average week of training look like?
I have trainings six days a week, from Monday to Saturday. I have trainings twice a day — one training session in the morning, whereas the other in the evening. It makes up to six hours’ training a day. I do gym as well as running other than court training. I keep my Sundays free to relax and spend time with my family. 
What were your feelings when you got selected for the Tokyo Olympics as well as do the honours of bearing the Pakistani flag?
It had always been my dream, since I started my professional career, to represent my country internationally in huge events such as the Olympics. When I received the great news of my selection, I could not believe that my dream had finally come true. Being the first ever Pakistani badminton player to play at the Olympics’ badminton event as well as being the flag bearer for my motherland was a moment of immense pride and joy for not only me and my family, but also for my whole nation.
My journey towards Olympics began when I won the title of Pakistan International series, 2017. Upon the basis of my performance, the secretary of Pakistan Badminton Federation, Mr. Wajid Ali, sent me to the selection program of Asian Olympic Project (AOP) in Malaysia. I got selected in the respective project because of my international ranking. I am proud to be a part of AOP since 2017 that also sponsors my two to three international tournaments annually.
How did you ensure your mental health while playing against top players in the huge event of Olympics?
It was difficult to cope with mental health during Olympics as all the athletes had to quarantine prior to the competition. Moreover, being the first ever badminton player from Pakistan to qualify for Olympics, people had a lot of expectations from me. In addition, I also had a very tough group, which included the world champion, Akane Yamaguchi, and world’s no.19, Kirsty Gilmour. Nonetheless, the excitement of my dream coming true outweighed the stress I had to go through.
How do you plan to improve your world ranking?
To improve my world ranking, I do not only need to play more tournaments but also improve the level of my game; playing more tournaments helps you gain points which determines your world ranking and also helps you gain international exposure. 
Who is your dream shuttler that you wish to play against in one of your matches? 
I would like to play against Nozomi Okhuara from Japan. 
If you were not a badminton player, what would you have been?
If I was not a badminton player, then I would have been a Chartered Accountant. I have done my bachelors in Accounting and Finance from one of the best business universities of Pakistan, IBA. 
When I did my corporate internship at EY (Ernst & Young), one of the top four auditing firms in the world, I got to know that it was not possible to do articleship while playing badminton professionally, so I had to drop my plan of doing CA, and just focus on badminton.
We lack not only sponsorships in badminton but also badminton academies in Pakistan that meet international standards; what in your opinion is necessary for improvement in this regard?
As you mentioned, we definitely do lack sponsorships. Every talented player who, unfortunately, does not have proper exposure has the same complaint in Pakistan. We need sponsorships in every sport as it is because of sponsors that we get the due international exposure as well as the opportunity to shine further in our fields.
Secondly and most importantly, I would like to point out that there is currently not a single badminton academy in Pakistan that meets international standards. We are privately coached and on top of that, we even have to arrange a court for ourselves; we are not facilitated in that matter either. You can imagine how problematic that must be for the players when they have to undergo all the stress of arranging everything on their own — be it their physical fitness, court training or even their diet plans. We need a complete overhaul in our infrastructure to excel at an international level as these impediments truly affect the players’ progress and development.  
What is the one piece of advice or message that you would give to aspiring female badminton players in Pakistan?
Time management is the key to success. If you wish to give your best in both sports and studies/life, you should stop procrastinating. Success is not a piece of cake and takes many sacrifices from you. A little spoiler alert, but yes, you must limit your social media scrolling as well as miss your family gatherings, concerts and some other fun activities. Can you imagine, PV Sindhu, a silver medallist from the 2016 Rio Olympics, refrained from using her mobile for three months before Olympics to devote her time religiously for that important event? The other essential thing is having the desire to be the best. HH

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