“Look at the difference- when the men are playing a game of cricket, the whole country is at a standstill, watching and cheering. When the women are playing, no one watches with so much angst and zeal. And if there is such discrimination in cricket, what will I say about other sports. I'm hoping to be one of the many women to bring a change in this scenario,” says Mahfuza Khatun Shila, the first Bangladeshi woman to win gold for swimming in the South Asian (SA) Games, and the first Bangladeshi to win 2 consecutive Golds in the SA Games.
Shila took 34.88 seconds on her way to win the gold medal in the event, breaking the previous record of 34.97 seconds timing made by Sri Lankan swimmer Raheen Mayuni in 2006 SA Games in Colombo. Earlier in the Games, Shila won the gold medal for Bangladesh in 100m Breast Stroke (women) event in swimming.
Since she was a mere teenager, Shila has been looking after her family, finding financial aid and help within her own sporting talents. While in school in Noapara, Jessore, she was always quite the athlete. “I used to be a part of the Shishu Academy and would always play the sprint and long jump games.” There would be frequent competitions held thana, zillah (district) and bibhag (division) wise. “During one such competition, when I was in grade 3 at school, I was too late to apply for anything except swimming. Our then school sports teacher taught me some basic techniques and asked me to just go for it.” She came first- for thana, and then district and then ultimately the whole division.
And thus, began Shila's journey as one of the best swimmers the country has seen.
When in grade 4, Shila competed in the national board and also came first. In 2002, she was noticed by Abdul Mannan, who asked her to join BKSP (Bangladesh Krira Shikkha Protishtan) - the national sports institute. “Due to financial restraints, I could not join and I didn't see any scope. I gave that up, until a letter arrived from BKSP urging me to join. I took the letter to my school and asked my trainer, Suleiman sir, what I should do. His friend Rijol Bishesh, from BKSP, then took me under his wing.”
From 2004 to 2016, Shila has won gold for 100m and 50m breaststrokes in all national games. In 2006, she secured 3rd place at the SA Games in Colombo, then silver at the SA Games hosted in Dhaka.
While supporting her family single-handedly since she was in grade 8, and also bagging gold after gold with her remarkable skills and talent, Shila knew a good education's worth and enrolled herself into Chittagong University where she completed her Bachelor's and Master's in Mass Communication and Journalism.
In 2013, she joined the Bangladesh Navy and made the record time for breaststroke while she was stationed at Gopalganj. “This year, I'm hoping to become a Civil Officer.”
Right before the Games, Shila had faced some issues. “There were many times when, even though I was training hard, I was not being selected for games. That really frustrated me. I was swimming, then taking a bus to Chittagong to give exams, then taking another bus to Dhaka to train- and when all that hard work was being undermined, I started becoming demotivated,” says Shila. When selected for the SA Games, Shila had lost that enthusiasm, and was going for the sake of going. Until she met their coach, South Korean specialist Park Pagun, who said to her, “you are the only one who can do it.” For him, she tried to bring that spark back within her. He trained them rigorously. “We even had a training where we would throw up for hours. He would make us drink litres and litres of water and then train, which is difficult beyond words.”
The day before her competition, Shila spoke to her parents, who have given her more support than she could ever have asked for, throughout her entire career. They said to her, “You trained hard, you worked hard, if you won't win, who will?” The day of her competition, her coach said similar words to her, “I know you can win. Just go out there in the water and swim your heart out. Leave the rest up to me.” With those words, Shila got her magic back. While she went towards the water, she decided to not look back for a second and just go for it with all her heart.
And she won- medals and hearts alike.
“When I was received back in my hometown, everyone was so happy, I could see it in their faces. I couldn't believe I was the one who brought this joy to them. I won a lot more than I had hoped to win,” says Shila.
Shila wants to help pave the way to freedom and victory for women in our country. “Our women are so talented, but they hardly get highlighted. In this male dominated society, I was lucky my family was so supportive of me. In cricket, men get more importance, in football too. Let alone other sports,” she says. “There are 1000s of girls all across the country just waiting to unleash magic. I want to inspire these girls. Help them be confident. With one Shila winning, 20 Shilas will rise.”
Shila believes that women will get the recognition they deserve once they get the exposure they deserve. “My only request to the people of Bangladesh, especially the parents, is to please, please let your daughters out. Let them take on the streets, let them play, let them acquire skills—you don't know the wonders us women can do. Give us the chance and we'll show you.”