Sports as a second chance

Shakhnoza Mirzayeva was always active: dancing, drawing, knitting – her mom stimulated her a lot. “I dreamt of becoming a doctor” – says Shakhnoza, “however, at the age of 10 I had a serious accident and doctors amputated part of my leg. Somebody told me I would not be able to pass the medical examination to become a doctor. Now I know it is not true, but back then I gave up on my dream.”

Shakhnoza’s rehabilitation took around one year. “As soon as I got used to my prosthetic leg, I continued my active lifestyle. I learnt to ride a bike again, played with the kids in my neighborhood”, says Shakhnoza.

Stand up and start training

Shakhnoza remembers her physical education teacher with fondness: “I felt odd being back at school. During my first gym class, I just sat in the corner trying not to be noticed, but the teacher came up to me saying: ‘Why are you sitting down? Start training!’ As if she didn’t even notice the change in me.”

Thanks to that teacher’s support and motivation, Shakhnoza discovered her aptitude for sports. First basketball, later rifle shooting.

“For 3 years I practiced shooting at least ninety minutes every day. Since I had to stand, it involved a lot of pressure on my legs. It was hard”, she explains. “When someone approached me about canoeing, I tried it and started practicing”.

Professional sports

Shakhnoza liked canoeing and decided to go professional.

“My first big moment was in 2016 at the Asian Open Canoeing Championship. There was only one other competitor. I lost, but with a very small time-difference. This experience gave me the inspiration to really focus on my sport. I traveled from one training camp to another. I spent most of my time training”.

“In 2017, I went to the Czech Republic for my first World Championship. Without a trainer, in a different country, at a big international sport event, I felt anxious, but I ended up among the finalists. During the final race, I came second. It was a good achievement and I realised I could still do better”, says Shakhnoza with determination.

In 2019 Shakhnoza won gold at the Canoe Sprint World Championship in Hungary. “It was a great feeling. My competitors were more experienced, most of them medalists at the Paralympic Games. Nobody knew me, but I came first”, she laughs.

Sports during the pandemic

Shakhnoza was preparing for the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The games were postponed.

“This was frustrating and psychologically difficult. I had been training hard for the games and the lockdown situation left all that hanging in the air. For a while, I couldn’t train outside in the water as I used to. I could only talk to my trainer on the phone or via video link.”

Still, giving up was not an option for Shakhnoza. “My mom is my biggest source of inspiration. She is strict at times, but she is always there for me. She has taught me to stand up every time I fall and keep going”.

‘I Choose Sport’

The Olympic Games are now scheduled to take place in September. All Shakhnoza’s efforts are geared towards this occasion.

“Sport is my life! I even decided to get my bachelor’s degree in sports. I am still not sure what I will do in the future after my professional sports career ends. With my degree, I will be able to give back to the new generation, pass on what I know, be a mentor.”

Shakhnoza occasionally visits schools and sport centers to talk to young people, share her life story and motivate them to play sports. UNODC invited her to participate in a public awareness raising campaign in Uzbekistan to promote civic values and disseminate the benefits of sport in promoting respect, fair play and making the right choices in life.

The ‘I Choose Sport’ campaign is centred around motivational videos, which highlight the role of sport in building youth resilience to drugs, crime and violence. It was developed under the UNODC Youth Crime Prevention through Sport initiative and the Line Up Live Up life skills training programme.

“This is a wonderful initiative for every young person, especially those like me searching for meaning. Sport is a treasure chest which can give you many skills. It makes you strong, forms your character. I found my life’s meaning through sport and I am happy about it”, says Shakhnoza.

Featuring national sports champions, like Shakhnoza, as positive role models, the videos have been broadcast on national TV, shown in Tashkent’s subway and they are being used as motivational teaching tools for 2 million students in Uzbekistan’s secondary schools. With Shakhnoza’s involvement, the campaign especially encourages girls to engage in sports and believe in their own abilities.

Message to myself

“I used to think over and over what my life would be like if I didn’t have my accident. Now, I can say with confidence that I do not regret that day a single bit. Maybe I didn’t become a doctor as I used to dream, but it is ok. What happened made me who I am. I am not sure I would have found my way otherwise. Sports gave me a second and maybe better chance in life. Today I am honored to be a World Champion. I feel that I have found my purpose and I never look back, only forward”.


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