Twenty-year-old sprinter Kimia Yousofi is heading to Rio de Janeiro as Afghanistan's flag bearer and her country's only female athlete competing in this year's Olympics.
For Yousofi, an Afghan refugee born in Iran, the road to the grand stage in Rio was a tortuous one. Her family fled their home country during the Taliban reign. Growing up in a foreign land, she was never given the chance to fully embrace the sport she loved.
"When I was little, in Iran, there were some restrictions against Afghan women participating in running. Though I did some training, I was never allowed to compete with Iranian athletes. As much as I love running, I rarely got the chance to compete,” said Yousofi.
The turning point came when she was 17. She stood out in a competition held by the Afghan government in an effort to discover female athletes. She was then contacted by the Afghan Athletics Federation who provided her with professional training. The following three years she trained from dawn to dusk while balancing her school work.
"It was very hard at the beginning of the training, even running feels difficult. When I slowly made some accomplishments, then the confidence gradually took effect. It was then I realised I am closer and closer to my dreams," said Yousofi.
Yousofi made the national track and field team in late 2015 and competed in the South Asian Games held in India earlier this year. Though she did not bring home a medal, her performance impressed the Afghan Olympic organising committee, which led to a decision on her representing the country at the Olympics.
"There will be many champions from various nations at the Olympics, so I do not expect to win a medal. In the past two years, I have put in my best efforts in training. I hope I can achieve my best performance. Though my country still has many issues, I will prove to the world that we are striving,” said Yousofi.
When learning she was named the flag bearer for the opening ceremony by the Afghan Olympic organising committee, Yousofi was excited to find a sense of belonging.
"Though I started out training in Iran, I have always been an Afghan athlete. Therefore ultimately I need to go back to my own country, representing Afghanistan to compete and wave the Afghan flag at the Olympics," said Yousofi.