Sports During a Timeout | The Ismaili Canada

In Focus

Sports During a Timeout

Five professional athletes talk about sport during the pandemic.

Omar A. Rawji
Published October 23, 2021
From left to right: Ismaili athletes Alia Karmali, Arisha Ladhani, Zohib Amiri, Armaan Walli, and Zafir Rawji. Photos by: Bevan Lenders/SportsAction Pix, Jason Evans/@inthebluecrewdu, Stjepan Mackillop, Afghanistan National Football Team, Target Photography.
Since childhood, you’ve lived your life with a singular purpose.
You wake up early. You’re at the gym. You’re on the ice. You’re at the courts.
You train and practice. You eat carefully, watching everything you put in your body. When school’s done, you’re back at it.
Practicing, over and over. Repetition is the key.
This is the life of athletes aspiring to compete against the best in the world. Breaks in schedule are rare; if you take one, you’re aware someone else is using that time to improve, to get ahead, to take your spot.
Then a global pandemic hits, and it all comes to a halt.
On March 11, 2020, ESPN’s Nabil Karim was working at SportsCentre.
That evening, the NBA’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.
“The newsroom got real quiet,” said Karim.
“And then it got real crazy.”
News was breaking on Twitter as, one by one, sports leagues cancelled and suspended their seasons. SportsCentre, says Karim, turned into a COVID-19 news show for the ensuing months. Four months later, in July, North American sports leagues such as the NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS resumed their seasons. 
Nabil Karim at work at ESPN. Photo: Courtesy SportsCentre
“When sports came back it was just a sense of relief,” said Karim. “I was ready to take sports in any way possible. If it was in a bubble, great. Without fans, fine. If we didn’t have full rosters, that was okay.” 
“Sports is this great place we can go and turn off the rest of the world, cheer and be part of a community, and we couldn’t do that anymore.” 
While everyone’s happy to have sports back, Karim summarizes what he and many athletes around the world have come to fully understand during the COVID-19 pandemic: “There’s more to life than just sports.” 
Armaan Walli - Canadian National Open Gymnast
For gymnast Armaan Walli, training and focusing alone was hard as the lockdown began. “You have to be so much more careful learning skills because you don’t have the support of a coach or a teammate to save you if you screw up,” said Walli.
Armaan Walli at the first qualifier for the Ontario Provincial Championships, Mississauga, Ontario, December 2019. Photo: Stjepan Mackillop
In 2019, Walli, now 17, was a gold medalist on the pommel horse at the Gymnastics Ontario provincial championship. That qualified him to compete at the Eastern Canadian Gymnastics Championships in P.E.I., where he won silver medals for pommel horse and the team competition the same year.
Soon after the lockdown began in March, Walli borrowed a pommel horse from his gym and set it up in his basement. He spent hours training every day. The pandemic helped him focus on his goals and become more determined, he says, explaining his immediate goal is to represent Ontario at the next Canadian national competition.
“It’s definitely been a trying time, but I think my mentality towards training and getting things done in general has definitely changed for the better,” he said.
Zafir Rawji - AJHL Ice Hockey Player
Currently playing for the Shortpark Crusaders in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Zafir Rawji said his family usually came together for a meal five to 10 times during the seven- to nine-month hockey season. When COVID-19  arrived, they were together every evening.
Zafir Rawji at Sherwood Park Arena, Sherwood Park, Alberta, October 2018. Photo: Target Photography
“The pandemic let you reconnect with your family, eat meals with your family and enjoy each other’s company,” said Rawji. 
The 19-year-old is in his second year with the Crusaders. During his Bantam AAA year, he made it to the All-Star Game and was a top-five scorer in Alberta. He played at the 2016 Alberta Cup, serving as assistant captain beside team captain Kirby Dach, who completed his rookie season in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2020. Rawji hopes to play NCAA hockey in the U.S. in the next couple of years before jumping to professional hockey.
When his hockey games started back up in November, he said he was happy to practice and play again, even if his team was playing in front of 150 fans instead of 2000.
Alia Karmali - Professional Football Player

Alia Karmali’s 2020 year was supposed to be all about football. With the dream of making a national team, she was preparing to play for New South Wales at the Australian national championships in May, and for Alberta at the Canadian championship in July. COVID-19 sacked her plans.

Karmali playing for Australian football team Central Coast Sharks in a playoff game, October 2020. Photo: Bevan Lenders/SportsAction Pix
“It was a big slap in the face because I had based so much of my life around football, but it was also kind of a blessing,” said Karmali. She was so invested in football that she wasn’t giving time to anything outside her sport, she explained.
Karmali, who grew up in Edmonton, and is currently finishing a medical residency in Terrigal, Australia, signed a contract with the San Diego Tridents of the American Women’s Football League in July 2020. The season is likely to begin in May 2021.
The 36-year-old only began playing football in 2017, though she had played basketball, ice hockey and rugby for years. Soon after being introduced to football, she decided to try the quarterback position.
“You need to perform and everyone’s relying on you,” she said of the challenges of the pivotal position. “If everything falls apart you need to take that on and not take it personally.”
Arisha Ladhiani - Professional Tennis Player in the WTA
Professional tennis player Arisha Ladhani enjoyed having time to herself during the lockdown.
“I went for a lot more walks outside,” said Ladhani, who also spent more time with family. “Everyone was able to have that time to slow down and appreciate what’s around us.”
Ladhani playing for Denver University against the University of New Mexico at Denver Tennis Park, Denver, Colorado, February 2019. Photo: Jason Evans/@inthebluecrewdu
The Vancouver native, who took tennis scholarships at the University of California, Irvine and the University of Colorado Denver, has been playing professionally for over a year. She made it to her first Women’s Tennis Association singles final in Mexico in October 2019 and has made it to four doubles semi-finals in other tournaments.
The 24-year-old explained how COVID-19 thwarted the tennis circuit: “You have to be able to travel all over the world if you want to be able to play professionally. It’s crazy to think about when that will be able to happen again.”
Ladhani won the singles gold medal at the 2016 Jubilee Games in Dubai. She says she still talks to many of the athletes she met and enjoys the support system. She also marvels at how sports have helped people during these trying times.
“Sports have become so much more popular during the pandemic,” said Ladhani. “It’s a way to be active and to take your mind off everything.”
Zohib Islam Amiri - Professional Soccer Player in India’s I-League

Professional soccer player Zohib Islam Amiri says the pandemic had positive and negative effects: he got to spend time in Montreal with his mom and dad, whom he hadn’t seen much during the last 15 years, but he couldn’t do what he loves the most.

Amiri In Qatar before the World Cup qualifying game between Afghanistan and Qatar. Photo: Afghanistan National Football Team
At 15, Amiri, now 30, left home in Pakistan to train in Afghanistan with the country’s national team. Five years later, his family moved back to Afghanistan, but Amiri had moved to India to play professionally. 
In the 2012-13 season, Amiri won the I-League’s Fans Player of the Year award and, in 2013, he captained the Afghan national football team to the South Asian Championships. 
Amiri was in India when it went into lockdown in March. He describes it as a “scary” experience. “People were not getting food, not eating properly,” he said. He worried how long it might go on. He was finally able to travel to Montreal to be with his family in July. 
“We need to be in shape no matter where you are. In quarantine, lockdown, or outside,” said Amiri, who does weights, cardio and yoga at home. “I need to be active. That is the only way. Stay positive and keep working out.”
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