The women used to be so nervous about playing wheelchair basketball in public that they had opaque screens erected to conceal the court.
Now their faces are being splashed across media outlets in Afghanistan.
On Sunday, Afghanistan’s national women’s wheelchair basketball team won their first championship at the 4th annual Bali Cup International Tournament in Indonesia. They played against women’s teams from India, Indonesia and Thailand, and beat out Thailand 65-25 in the final match.
It was the first time the team had ever played in an international tournament. “I’m glad to have won such an honor,” said Nilofar Bayat, a team member, to Afghan news channel Tolo News. “The teams were powerful, but we got stronger after playing them and won.”
Jess Markt, their American coach, has been training the 11 members of the national team since 2012. While he couldn’t be at the tournament in Indonesia due to a scheduling conflict — Afghan coaches Tahera Yosoufi and Wasiqullah Sediqi traveled with the women — he’s watched the female players transform over the past five years.
“They’re one of the greatest sports stories that I’ve ever been associated with,” says Markt, who trains wheelchair basketball teams for the International Committee of the Red Cross in countries including Afghanistan, South Sudan and India. “I’m incredibly proud of them.”
When the Afghan team first started shooting hoops, they were worried about what their family and friends might think of them. It’s hard enough being a woman in Afghanistan, explains Markt — and playing sports as a disabled woman was unheard of.
That’s why the women, who range in age from 17 to 30, initially requested the screens around the courts, he says. But after the women saw how much excitement there was around the men’s wheelchair basketball competition in 2013, they told Markt: “We want people to see us play. Take down the screens.”
The women’s wheelchair basketball program in Afghanistan, supported by the ICRC, has exploded in popularity, says Markt. The ICRC gets them practice space, builds courts, provides equipment and even covers taxi fares for players who need a ride to games. Today, there are 120 women wheelchair basketball players in Afghanistan. Many of them are not able to use their limbs as a result of polio, birth defects or war-related injuries.
“Other disabled girls see the women doing incredible things and say ‘I wanna be like them.’ ” says Markt. “The national team has become role models to girls around the country.”
Markt is heading back to Afghanistan in October to organize a national tournament for men and women. He hopes to take the women’s team to Thailand for another tournament.
The women’s national team was previously in Thailand in April for a wheelchair basketball training camp. It was their first time traveling internationally and competing against women outside of their country. It was also the first time they had ever seen a beach.
They got to the open water as fast as they could, Markt recalled. “Fully clothed, in their headscarves and beautiful Afghan clothing,” he says. “It was an incredible sight.”
By the time they got to Indonesia this past week, the women felt like “beach veterans,” Markt jokes.
“We’ve done this before, it’s no big deal,” the players said, as they dipped into Bali’s crystal blue waters.