When she was just two years old, Asiya Mohammed was hit by a train as she crossed railway tracks near her Kenyan home, an accident that claimed both her legs and several fingers.
Seven years later, she was orphaned.
Rather than crumbling in the face of such adversity, Mohammed has gone on to become a highly decorated para-athlete and is the first Kenyan female rower to qualify for the Paralympic Games opening in Tokyo later this month.
Yet the bubbly 29-year-old, who was brought up by a cousin and first trained as a teacher, says she did not value sports until weight gain changed her outlook on life about five years ago.
"As a disabled person, I was weighing 70 kilograms which caused a lot of concern to my immediate family. They advised me to join sports to help me cut the weight and remain in shape," she says.
The sports available at the time in her home city of Mombasa on Kenya's east coast were wheelchair tennis, badminton, and rowing.
Mohammed went on to win medals in competitions in all three sports as well as wheelchair marathons.
But eventually, the double-amputee decided to focus on rowing and now will be competing in the PR1 single sculls in Tokyo.
"I realized I was getting more captivated by rowing because of the friendly atmosphere, and I made up my mind that I was going to do this sport until I qualified for the Olympics," she says.
"I made an immediate decision to abandon teaching completely and go full-bodied into sport full time, especially in the rowing."
'Heartbroken and frustrated'
Mohammed qualified to compete in her first-ever international event—the season-opening para-rowing Gavirate Regatta in Italy in May 2019.
"She finished second last in her competition, but her passion and keen interest for rowing impressed the international team of coaches attending the regatta who remarked that it wouldn't take long before Asiya qualified for the World Championships and the Paralympics," says Joshua Kendagor, a Kenya Navy officer who acts as Asiya's coach and will accompany her to the Paralympics.
She eventually booked her berth for Tokyo at the African pre-Paralympic championships in Tunis in October 2019, where she beat out seven other contenders to win the PR1 women's singles sculls, for competitors using their arms only.
But it has not been smooth sailing for Mohammed, who has had to overcome many frustrations as a physically disabled woman in sport—including a lack of funding and support from Kenyan federations.
She had to borrow proper rowing gear from her able-bodied male compatriots to compete in Tunis after her request to the Kenya Rowing Federation to provide her with the competition kit failed to materialize.
"I was so heartbroken and frustrated when the Kenya Rowing Federation and the Kenya National Paralympic Committee both told me they would not be sponsoring any rowers for the pre-Olympics qualifier due to lack of funds, and yet my male colleagues had received full funding from the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOCK)."
Her family and friends were also forced to raise the money for her airfare to Tunisia—but she repaid them by being the only Kenyan rower at the event to qualify for the Para games.
"After the championships, I was gifted with two rowing boats by the International Rowing Federation—one for training and the other for the competition at the Paralympics. But until today, I haven’t received the two boats," she said.
But the Kenyan says she is determined to put the problems behind her.
"I don't want to finish last. I am very realistic," says Mohammed, adding that she wants to get to the final six in the PR1 women's single sculls to be in medal contention.
"I am in rowing until I win an Olympic medal." (AFP)
(Banner and thumbnail photo: Kenyan para-rower athlete Asiya Mohammed starts warming up with her boat during her training session at Tudor Water Sports Hotel in Mombasa, Kenya on July 26, 2021, ahead of the preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Luis Tato/AFP)