Feature: Female Turkish athlete breaks down social barriers

2021-06-08 12:05:55 GMT2021-06-08 20:05:55(Beijing Time) Xinhua English

ISTANBUL, June 8 (Xinhua) -- Gulcan Palavan has defied all of the odds to become an international female Turkish athlete, breaking down deep-rooted gender and social barriers on her laborious path to glory.

The frail-looking but relentless runner aged 21 was born in a remote impoverished village of the Gole district in the mountainous province of Ardahan in northeastern Turkey near the Georgian border, the fifth child of a family of seven.

Raised by illiterate parents, Palavan aspired to be more than a shepherd like her father as she was helping him feed the large family.

She discovered her skills when she was running after cattle in elevated green pastures and eventually got picked for the national team, even though she wasn't able to afford the proper shoes for the competition.

Palavan won the first of her many medals and ranked third in the World International Mountain Running Youth Cup in 2015 in Bulgaria when she was 15. That was her first medal in an international competition.

"I love running. Whenever I feel bluesy or depressed, I go outside to run," she told Xinhua after a session of hard training in Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city, where she moved to two years ago.

An unnamed female benefactor financially supported her. But Palavan explained that a more sustainable sponsor would be welcomed for her to continue training in the city's extensive sports facilities with her current coaches.

Palavan's inspiring story is not only limited to sports.

She managed to escape from becoming a child bride in her native village, breaking down an objectionable tradition that has plagued women in her family like her mother and sisters, who ended up being married at a very early age.

"I ran for my freedom. Otherwise, I would have ended being married for years now after finishing elementary school. Graduating from high school and becoming an athlete would have been a distant dream," Palavan stressed.

The athlete currently shares her time between training for the 2024 Paris Olympics and getting ready for the university entrance exams to study sports, which she calls "the meaning of her life."

Early and forced marriage prevails as a disturbing reality in several parts of Turkey. Although schooling campaigns and financial aid to families aim to curb it, the practice lingers, particularly in rural areas.

"Especially in remote and rural areas, this illegal but socially accepted practice still widely exists, and Gulcan might have well been a child bride. But she overcame her fate by running," Melek Ozgul, an activist advocating an end to forced marriages, told Xinhua.

"It is quite difficult to break this social barrier, but she did it and became a model for other girls in her situation who do not want to marry while they are still at school," she said.

Palavan's mother and two sisters got married at the age of 13 and 14, and her parents wanted her to do the same.

"I did not want to end up like them. I wanted both to run and work," Palavan explained, noting that when she first came to Istanbul, a metropolis of 16 million people, incomparable to her native village, she worked in different jobs, including dishwashing in a restaurant and house cleaning.

Now she inspires many other young girls from her region and elsewhere. "I consider myself as a role model and want to be a trainer to help them in the future. I do not want them to go through what I had to," Palavan said.

The young athlete also stressed that she would love to visit and eventually train in China, where "there are many opportunities for athletes of her kind." Enditem