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Sana Won’t Stop Running or Smiling

Sana, standing in lane 3, smiles and lifts her leg to move into starting position.
Special Olympics Pakistan athlete Sana at the 400m Level C semifinals during Special Olympics World Games Berlin.

Sana (she only has one name like Madonna) was all smiles before her 400m Level C preliminary race at the 2023 Special Olympics World Games in Berlin. She was all smiles after the heat even though she came in last.

It’s been a long road for Sana to earn a spot representing Special Olympics Pakistan at these World Games, the largest inclusive sporting event of the year. As a teen, she was kept inside her rural home, her mother and grandmother afraid of what she might do if she was let out in public; they also feared for her safety.

Sana’s life changed when she was introduced to Special Olympics Pakistan. Through training in athletics, she learned how to follow directions, become more self-sufficient, and work toward her goals. The beginning of her journey as an athlete is documented in the short film, “As Far As They Can Run.” In it, she is seen six months after her initial training running her first race—a 5K, in which she runs past the finish line and keeps on running. Her coach sprints after her to let her know that she had not only finished, but had even earned a medal.

Sana is still running.

At the World Games Opening Ceremony, Sana was part of the relay carrying the Flame of Hope around the historic Olympiastadion Berlin that eventually lights the official Games cauldron. When she received the torch, she took off running, past a roaring crowd of fans, and past the athlete waiting to take over the next leg. Again, she was chased down, this time by a ceremony organizer, who brought her back to the handoff position.

Sana running with the flame of hope.
Sana at the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023 Opening Ceremony.

Sana’s smile is infectious.

Sana on stage with her arms up.
Sana receives a standing ovation at the “As Far As They Can Run” film screening.

On 21 June, the film “As Far As They Can Run,” which profiles two Pakistani teens along with Sana, was screened in front of an international crowd of Special Olympics celebrity supporters, volunteers, staff and leadership. Though many in the room are familiar with stories about the transformative power of sports, most were seen dabbing their eyes. Special Olympics Board Chairman Timothy Shriver said, “This film takes us beyond sports to the crucial need for inclusion.” He invited Sana to stand on stage after the film was over. She received not one, but two standing ovations filled with thundering applause, hoots and cheers. Sana shared that charismatic smile, waved and then covered her mouth in surprised appreciation.

Sana’s not finished smiling and running.

After Sana’s last-place finish in her 400m heat on 22 June, she wasn’t discouraged. For one thing, she qualified for two final races (400m and 4x400m) on 24 June. When asked about how she felt after the race, she said, “I feel great. I am looking forward to my next race!”

Sana exemplifies the true essence of an athlete—hardworking and excited to compete. She constantly reminds us all what it means to be “brave in the attempt.” Actress Ashley Judd said it best during audience the Q and A portion of the “As Far As They Can Run” screening, “We are in the presence of a legend!”

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