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Refugee Olympic Team athlete Manizha Talash on leaving Afghanistan to pursue breaking

Manizha Talash

In this photo taken on June 12, 2021, breakdancer Manizha Talash poses for a picture in Kabul. - The Taliban outlawed dozens of seemingly innocuous activities and pastimes in Afghanistan during their 1996-2001 rule -- including kite flying, TV soap operas, pigeon racing, fancy haircuts, and even playing music. These have made a comeback in the years since, but fears are growing they will be banned again if the hardline Islamists return to power. - TO GO WITH’AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-TALIBAN-LEISURE’,FOCUS by Jay DESHMUKH and AFP’s Afghanistan team (Photo by ADEK BERRY / AFP) / TO GO WITH’AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT-TALIBAN-LEISURE’,FOCUS by Jay DESHMUKH and AFP’s Afghanistan team (Photo by ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Manizha Talash is one of 36 athletes on the Refugee Olympic Team for Paris, one of two women on the team originally from Afghanistan and the lone athlete on the team who competes in the new Olympic sport of breaking.

Talash, 21, left Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban regained control of the country in August 2021. She has lived in Spain for the last two years.

Through an English translator, Talash spoke with about her sport, her story and her hopes for the Paris Olympics.

Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

NBC Sports: How did you become a breaker?

Talash: I first discovered breaking at age 17 in a Facebook video. I saw a young guy spinning on his head. I couldn’t believe that it was real. At first, I thought it was an edit or a filter or something. But it turned out to be real, and so I contacted him.

His name is Jawad, and I visited his local gym in Kabul. I began training with them, and after three months, I became a regular. I just fell in love with it. I was the only girl out of 55 people training.

NBC Sports: Why did you like breaking?

Talash: So there are two main reasons. First, I liked that it was difficult and challenging. I also liked that it was going against the status quo. I liked that it felt a little bit dangerous and rebellious. And then secondly, while I was breaking, I realized that as I was doing it, it was a way to escape all of the problems that I was experiencing in my life. So I felt like when I was breaking, it was relaxing, and it put me in a good mental state. It kind of took me out of my own reality.

NBC Sports: What was it like to be a young woman in Afghanistan growing up at that time when you started breaking?

Talash: It was very difficult because, one, dancing is illegal, period, in Afghanistan. But also it’s very looked down upon for girls to engage in any kind of sporting activities. So I got a lot of judgment from people in my neighborhood, even from my extended family members. It was definitely a risk that I was taking by breaking, but I continued to do it because I was very passionate about the sport because I had fallen in love with it. A lot of risks came with that. I received death threats and three bombing attempts against my club in Afghanistan at the local gym that I trained at. So it was putting not only myself but my fellow breakers in a lot of danger. When the media reported about my breaking, there were lots of negative comments and responses online from people in Afghanistan. But, now that I’m in Europe, and now that I’m going to the Olympics, people are now starting to say positive things. I noticed that it changed. It’s very different now being here in Europe, because in Europe and in the West, people are very supportive of women doing things like this. They’re very supportive of women trying to achieve these kinds of dreams. But in Afghanistan, it was really unheard of and really looked down upon.

There’s a distinction between breakdancing and breaking, too. Breaking is not just dance. It’s a sport. It’s a very physically demanding sport. So a lot of what I was trying to do as well in Afghanistan was raise awareness for that, trying to separate it from it being seen as dancing — which a lot of people frowned upon — and say, no, this is really a sport. It’s very demanding, and it takes a lot of athleticism.

NBC Sports: You mentioned there were three bombing attempts at the club where you trained. Were they all stopped before anything happened?

Talash: Two went off. The first was at an outdoor breaking competition. The second one was also at an outdoor breaking competition. It was a car bomb. The third, when they were inside the club, somebody tried to come in and do a suicide bombing attempt, but the police caught them before it could go off.

NBC Sports: Were there any fatalities or injuries?

Talash: Yes, people who were on the street did die. Nobody who was part of our gym or part of the breaking troupe.

NBC Sports: I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me about when you moved to Spain and why you moved to Spain?

Talash: Firstly, I had to go to Pakistan when the Taliban took over because I didn’t have an Afghan passport. I wasn’t able to get a visa to go elsewhere legally. So I had to enter Pakistan illegally over the border. I lived there for one year. Then I came to Spain. I didn’t come here because I wanted to live in Spain particularly; I didn’t come here because I wanted to live a certain lifestyle. I came here because I wanted to do something and to fulfill my dreams of going to the Olympics. I just wanted to go somewhere where I could train freely and continue to pursue my life goals.

NBC Sports: When did you leave Afghanistan for Pakistan?

Talash: August 2021. It was three days after the Taliban took over.

NBC Sports: Did you know anybody in Spain?

Talash: No.

NBC Sports: How did it end up being Spain and not another country?

Talash: My friend Jawad, who was actually the boy that I saw in the Facebook video. He came to Spain first. He worked with some Spanish offices and NGOs to support our case and get him first out of Pakistan. Then he spoke to them again and managed to get me and some of our other friends from the breaking troupe to come to Spain after. There really weren’t options to choose from because we didn’t have legal passports. It was really just up to what NGOs were willing to sponsor us.

NBC Sports: When did you learn that there was a way for you to get to the Olympics?

Talash: I really didn’t know if there was a way to go. I had been trying to find a way for a really long time, but I wasn’t able to get in touch with anyone until Jawad. He had a friend of a friend named Isabel from America.

Editor’s Note: Talash’s friend, Isabel Guarco, served as the translator during this interview.

Isabel Guarco: I just sent a cold email to a bunch of people with Olympic email addresses talking about her story. I got one response, and it happened to be the manager of the refugee team. I spoke to him over the phone immediately after he sent the email. He said, this is crazy. It’s very last minute. Everybody who’s going to be on the team has been training for the past several years. We’ve just heard about her, but breaking is debuting as a category this year. She just left Afghanistan. They really believed in her story. So he, on his end, kind of just spoke to everybody involved in the decision-making process. They quickly decided to put her on the team. It all happened really fast. I sent that email in late February. (Editor’s Note: The Refugee Olympic Team was announced May 2.)

NBC Sports: What were your emotions when you learned you made the Refugee Olympic Team?

Talash: It was twofold. On the one hand, I was very, very happy, but I was also very sad and scared for my family in Afghanistan because I was worried that my participation in the Games would put them in danger. So I was balancing both of those emotions at once when I got the news. But now I’m really happy that I can fulfill my dreams. My family is now in Spain. I’m training really, really hard to just go full force to achieve my dreams.

NBC Sports: The rest of your family is now in Spain?

Talash: Two to three days following the official announcement, my family left Afghanistan. They went to Pakistan first and then came to Spain.

It was a really hard week of the announcement, but basically, between the two of us (with Guarco), we had a lot of help with some friends who work in the legal space who were able to facilitate a path for my family to leave Afghanistan and safely come to Spain.

NBC Sports: Would you like to return to Afghanistan one day?

Talash: I’m always thinking about returning to Afghanistan. If the Taliban left in the morning, I would be there in the afternoon.

NBC Sports: What are you most looking forward to at the Olympics?

Talash: I’m really excited to have a platform to tell my story and share what’s in my heart and to really express my feelings about about what I’ve been through.

NBC Sports: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Talash: I want to say something about my breaking troupe from Afghanistan. They’re my family and they’re the reason where I am today. They’re the people who have always helped me. They’re called Superiors Crew.

NBC Sports: Are they still in Afghanistan?

Talash: No, they’re all in Spain.

NBC Sports: Did the crew’s club have to close in Afghanistan because of the bombings?

Talash: Yes. It was too dangerous. Because of this I had to start training at home. The truth is we didn’t want to close, but the police told us that we had to because it was too dangerous.