I have always been enthusiastic about sports, but when I was younger, I was told only boys could play sports, which disappointed me and made me regret being a girl.

On my way to the U.S. as a high school exchange student, I stopped in Tajikistan, and a friend of mine who used to be a basketball player taught me the basic moves. I remember we used to dribble the ball and run around with it. It was quite fun. Even though I didn’t know a single thing about basketball, I had the feel of how to dribble, and my friend was quite amazed I was doing it right.

In the U.S., there was a broken basketball rim outside our house, and I used to spend days shooting balls into it. I wanted to play for the Eureka High School basketball team, so I had to practice because all I knew was how to dribble and shoot. When our high school team had tryouts, I got excited and decided to go for a spot on the team.

When I got to the gym, I saw a big court with tons of balls and several rims hanging from the ceiling. The floor had a colorful, smooth surface, and in the middle, there was a big picture of a wildcat drawn in purple and gold. I turned around and around to look at the whole gymnasium. It was enormous.

Suddenly, the calm gym was filled with laughing and giggling. A bunch of tall blond girls came into the gym and began to practice shooting. Their shots were perfect. I went and sat in the corner so the balls wouldn’t hit me. When the coach arrived, we all lined up for the warm-up. Everyone else ran for three hours, but I could not run more than two laps. I fainted in the first hour and could not move. When I opened my eyes, I was in my warm, cozy bed, and I had not made it onto the team. I was very discouraged.

But when I came back from U.S., my ideas had changed. I was not dissatisfied with being a girl; rather, I was delighted. I joined the basketball team at my school and realized our country is at the bottom when it comes to sports, especially basketball. I spent hours and hours practicing on our school’s dusty court. Our rim was broken, and our court was full of sand and small thorns that used to get stuck in our ball, but these things never stopped me from practicing. Instead, they encouraged me to try harder so I could make a difference. It took me almost one year of regular practice and hard work until I got selected for the national team.

I will never forget the game three weeks ago, when I was playing as point guard. Our opponents were very tough. I had no expectations of winning the game—in fact, no one on our team did—but with hope and enthusiasm, we entered the court. At the end of the first half, we were losing by about ten points. Our coach encouraged us during the timeout. As soon as we entered the court for the second half, everyone sitting on the benches began calling my name, shouting, “Go Elly! You can do it!” and clapping. It gave all of us strength and optimism that we could still win. It was a great feeling, and we all tried our best.

When only five minutes of the game was remaining, we were still behind, but then things changed. The last basket was mine; it was a three-point shoot and we won by one point. It was absolutely amazing.

After a few days, I started gathering girls from my high school and training them. It seemed impossible at first because they didn’t even know how to hold a ball, but I didn’t give up. I would go to school at six o’clock in the morning and train them until eight o’clock. My sports teacher and I have now created different sports teams for running, soccer, basketball and handball. I feel very proud because one of my basketball students got selected among five high school kids to go to the United States for practice.

Since I began playing basketball, I have learned: “Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try.” I feel very happy because my dream of playing sports has come true.

By Ellaha