Asiya rows through rough waters in pursuit of Olympics glory

Participation at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics will not be an end in itself but the beginning of a burgeoning career in pararowing.

In Summary

•Asiya was involved in a train accident at the age of two that left her physically disabled. 

•She took up para-rowing in December 2018 and qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics in October 2019.

•Her preparations for the global showpiece has been laden with financial and logistical hurdles.

HEART OF STEEL: Asiya Mohammed preparing for a pararowing competition
HEART OF STEEL: Asiya Mohammed preparing for a pararowing competition

Were it not for a heart of a lion, Asiya Mohammed would have given up on life at an early age and resigned herself to mediocrity. 

In 1994, at the age of two, a train accident in Ganjoni, Mombasa County, left her physically disabled after losing both legs and three left-hand fingers. 

Her father, who unfortunately witnessed the accident, died on the same day from a stroke occasioned by the trauma of seeing his only daughter lying bloodied in hospital. 

Years later, while in Class Two, her mother passed on too, rendering her an orphan. 

Despite her physical limitations, she has dared to venture into uncharted territories that even able-bodied sportspersons would be afraid to attempt. 

Over two decades later, the Mombasa-born para-rower is in intense training in preparation for the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic Games. 

Asiya, 28, qualified for the global showpiece in October last year during the Olympic Rowing Qualification Regatta in Tunis, Tunisia  — less than two years after she had developed an interest in the sport. 

"The journey to the qualifiers was quite problematic. I did not have sufficient funds or even the right gear and attire for the sport. It is only family and friends that came to my aid by raising funds," Asiya says. 

Her qualification was made sweeter by the fact that she had been initially barred by the tournament organisers because she did not have the national team kit unlike other Kenyan rowers in the same competition. 

Love for para-rowing 

Initially, a tennis player, Asiya took up para-rowing in December 2018 after encouragement from a friend — a paralympic tennis counterpart — who asked her to join classes at Tudor Water Sports. 

"She told me that there was a group of British and South African experts who had come to Tudor to offer classes. From the first time I tried it out, I fell in love with the sport and decided to pursue it further," she says. 

Afterwards, she enlisted for classes as a solo rower — professionally known as Rowing Solo PR 1 — that were majorly overseen by Kenya Navy. 

Asiya partakes in a game of tennis at a past tourney.
Asiya partakes in a game of tennis at a past tourney.

During this period, she was still playing tennis and teaching as an Early Childhood Education tutor at Shappa Academy, Mombasa. 

Nonetheless, her path was laden with hurdles, chiefly, lack of finances. 

"The Kenya Rowing Federation said they were unable to fully assist because they did not have funds. Sometimes, I was forced to use my tennis attires in para-rowing but in most cases, I was barred because they are not the required gear," Asiya says. 

Instead, she saw these hurdles as opportunities to fortify her mental fortitude with her sights trained on bucking the trend among many para-rowers. 

"Many para-rowers give up quite easily because of these challenges. However, I had purposed that I would stand firm and persevere to the end. I wanted to make a change and show other para-rowers that it is possible," she says. 

More barriers ahead

Her qualification for Tokyo brought with it mixed feelings of ecstasy and uncertainty. 

Whereas she had reached her highest moment in life, she knew that more challenges abound in her path to greater glory. 

Indeed, to who that much is given, much is expected; in her preparations for Tokyo, Asiya has been compelled to be more mentally stoic. 

"The preparations for the Paralympics have been tough because I have not had the right equipment. The boat that I was using broke down and this has greatly hampered my training," she says. 

After her qualification a year ago, she was supposed to receive two boats —purchased by the International Rowing Federation —  to enable her to train and participate in Tokyo. 

One boat was to be shipped from China for training purposes whereas the other has already been sent to Tokyo, for competition purposes next year. 

"There seems to be a communication hitch between the Kenya National Paralympics Committee (KNPC), NOC-K and the Ministry of Sports. KNPC says that it already sent the quotation for the shipping costs to the ministry but until now I have not received any word on the way forward," she says. 

Her fear is that the International Rowing Federation may give the boat to another national federation should the government dither on shipping it into the country. 

Regardless, Asiya remains bullish and bubbly, eagerly awaiting the chance to rub shoulders with the more experienced para-rowers. 

Asiya in her charted territory of influence.
Asiya in her charted territory of influence.

She is not under the illusion that it will be an easy undertaking considering that she is a newbie in the sport.

"When I qualified, I told my coach that I was going to shred every ounce of my energy in the competition. I know that am an underdog but there is no way I am going to allow myself to come last," Asiya says. 

Considering the huge strides that she has made in the sport, it would be fatal for any of her competitors to take her words lightly. 

She only started training seriously for the Paralympics qualifiers in May 2019 amidst the financial and logistical challenges. 

Never give up  

Asiya bemoans the fact that many persons living with disabilities do not have strong support systems to enable them fulfil their God-given potential. 

She is thankful for her 38-year old cousin who took on parental responsibilities at a youthful age of 19. 

Her family inspires her to pursue her ambitions with gusto. 

"I have been lucky to have a strong family support system. My cousin became my parent at 19 years after my mother died and has always been supportive. We are a strong family, always cracking jokes against each other and supporting one another to grow," Asiya says. 

Drawing upon her experiences, she encourages those with similar experiences to live their lives to their full potential without worrying about what others perceive of them. 

"People will always talk no matter what you do or not do. Do not let your physical limitations hold you back from your ambitions. They will always be a better life after all the tribulations you go through," she says. 

She urges Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed to pay more attention to Paralympians' affairs so that many more can attain — or even surpass — her achievements. 

"I have qualified for the Paralympics yet I have been going through these challenges. What of other upcoming Paralympians? Their challenges must be worse," she says. 

Tokyo will not be an end in itself but the beginning of a burgeoning career in para-rowing, she says. 

She will also continue with her tennis career whereas she cannot wait for schools to reopen so that she can mingle with the charming and heartwarming children of Shappa Academy. 

For now, it is 'Mission Tokyo' for Asiya — a task that may seem Herculean for many but well within the grasp of this iron woman. 

A podium stage appearance will be the perfect reward for her diligence and patience in the sport. 


Name: Asiya Sururu Mohammed

Date of Birth: April 1992

Place of Birth: Mombasa

Family: The only child

Education: Port Reitz Special School (Primary); Joy Town Special School, Thika (Secondary); Shanzu Teachers Training College (Diploma in Early Childhood Development)

Profession: Early Childhood Education teacher 

Hobbies: Swimming and watching movies (horrors and action movies)