Fifteen months ago, young mother Khaoula had never even thought about competing in shooting sports. Now, she has successfully reached the minimum qualification standard for the women’s 10m air rifle at Tokyo 2020 and is hoping to be named in the Refugee Olympic Team. A remarkable story that reverberates far beyond sport.
For three-time men’s Olympic air rifle champion Niccolo Campriani, there is one thing that stands out above and beyond all else with Khaoula. And it is why he is eternally thankful to be on her team.
“She sees hope; she’s one of the very few who sees it and believes it,” Campriani said.
It is why, in March 2019, he picked her to be part of a wildly ambitious scheme to train two refugee athletes, brand new to shooting sports, to Olympic standard in little more than a year.
“It was just this light in her eyes,” Campriani recalled of the one-day open trial session in Lausanne, Switzerland, when he first spotted Khaoula. “I truly believed she was passionate and she wanted to prove something, but out of hope, rather than frustration or anger.”
Khaoula had arrived alone in Switzerland from the Middle East in late 2014. Integrating into a new world and a new culture was tough. A keen sportswoman from childhood, karate had provided a lifeline, but then in 2018 she fell pregnant and had to stop. After the birth, the opportunity to join Campriani’s try-out was too tempting to pass up, even if she had to bring her four-month-old son with her.
When they told me there was a project to do with the Olympics and I could go to try, I went.Khaoula
“ Whenever I get anything about sport, I just go for it.”
Campriani, who was looking for attitude and aptitude far more than actual performance, liked what he saw.
“The fact she was the only mum coming to the project, the fact that she had already made the assessment that she was going to deal with the training and the baby, and still wanted to be there, was a sign of strength,” the Italian said.
Shocked but delighted, Khaoula set off, with two others, on the course laid out by Campriani. Finding a balance between caring for her infant son, studies and her new sport has been hugely demanding. As Khaoula puts it, she is “starting a new life” in Switzerland, a task that is tough enough without attempting to become an elite athlete in her spare moments.
“I prepare my son [for nursery] first,” she said, explaining a typical day. “Then I go for half a day to school; luckily the school is quite flexible. Sometimes I have some internships and I am working in administration half the day. The other 50 per cent [of the day], I am training. Then I pick up my son, play with him, give him his dinner and get him ready to go to bed. After that, I either do some homework for school or some additional exercises for shooting. It’s a lot, but I try to stay very positive and carry on.”
Mercifully, some of the intricacies of her new sport have proved a real blessing.
“For me, breathing and meditation [both key aspects of sport shooting as taught by Campriani] are a big help, not only as an athlete, but as a woman and a mother,” Khaoula said. “Before that, I was a bit lost, with a young baby, school, sport every day. I was like, ‘Oh, there is so much to do’, but having this discipline – I have to train every single day or else I will lose too much – I feel more peaceful and relaxed. And it gives me a lot of confidence. If meditation were a sport, it would be the sport of shooting. When I am in front of the target, I forget everything and feel relaxed.”
Campriani even took his pupils on a training trip to India, both to work with and compete against some of the best in the world and to understand more about breathing and meditation. Khaoula loved it, learning from the likes of Apurvi Chandela – a two-time women’s 10m air rifle World Cup winner who finished fourth at the 2018 World Championships – and revelling in the spiritual atmosphere.
The COVID-19-enforced lockdown has not stopped her progression either. She professes to have been doing movements in front of her mirror and breathing exercises daily, even while Lausanne’s World Archery Excellence Centre has been closed. Access to this type of elite training facility is one of the reasons why she “gives everything she has from the bottom of her heart” every day.
Despite securing the minimum qualification criteria at March’s European Championships in Poland, Khaoula knows her ticket to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is not yet booked. But should she get there, she is determined to “get a good result” – an attitude Campriani loves.
“She keeps comparing her scores to the scores you need to make the finals of the Games,” the man who won two gold medals at Rio 2016 and one at London 2012 said with a laugh. “I like that she doesn’t stop dreaming.
“It’s a very quick evolution on a sporting and human side.”
For Campriani, the journey so far has not only shown it is possible to do the highly improbable and reach the qualification standard in a year, but it has also given him personal justification for the thousands of hours he spent in single-minded pursuit of sporting glory.
“It is a great way to finally have some closure with my sport, and a great way to give a meaning to such an important part of my life. I will always be grateful for that,” he said.
For Khaoula herself, it has meant even more.“I am proud I could take this type of decision. It is a big victory to be part of this project,” she said. “We only have one life, and we have to live positively and not negatively.”