Kheir blazing the trail as county’s top female cross country performer Read more: Hudson Reporter - SCOREBOARD 10 16 2011 Kheir blazing the trail as county’s top female cross country performer County Prep senior competing for Dickinson carries torch for Muslim runners

by Jim Hague

Fawzia Kheir truly believed she was destined to become a basketball player. After all, her father, Ahmed, was a basketball player in his younger days.
“I tried a lot of sports when I was younger, but I really liked basketball because of my dad,” Fawzia Kheir said. “I was a good rebounder.”
But there was an aspect to the game of basketball that appealed to Fawzia.
“I liked running around,” Kheir said. “I started running the whole court all the time and I liked it. I just felt comfortable running.”
So when Kheir was attending P.S. 25 in Jersey City and eventually the new No. 7 Middle School in the Heights section, she decided to enter the Jersey City public school track and field championships.
“I won my first meet,” said Kheir, who won the 400-meter dash in her first grade school event. “I was in sixth grade. That was it. I was hooked. No more basketball.”
When the time came to attend high school, Kheir enrolled at County Prep, a member of the Hudson County Schools of Technology. She enrolled in a special pre-med curriculum and joined the track team at the school.
“I was able to run the 400 and 800 meters, but I never ran distances before,” Kheir said. “I had no idea what cross country was. When I first started, I couldn’t finish a mile and a half. I would get tired and stop running. But eventually, it got easier. I have to give Mr. [Tommy] Downes all the credit, because he’s the one who pushed me.”
In her first cross country meet, there was more instant success. Kheir won the St. Dominic Academy Invitational freshman race.
“I knew that I just loved running,” Kheir said. “It’s my favorite sport.”
Kheir had a distinction about her when she ran. Because of her devout Muslim faith, she is not permitted to expose any of her body while running. So Kheir has to compete while wearing long-sleeved compression shirts and long-legged pants. She also dons a full head scarf as well.
“People can’t believe how I can stand the heat when I run like that,” Kheir said. “I try not to think about it. When they ask, I just say it’s part of my religious beliefs. I’m used to people asking me now, because it’s happened over and over. But it does make a big difference and it can drag me down a little. It does get hot and it kills me in the summer time, but I tend to get through it.”
Kheir also has to endure the Muslim tradition of Ramadan, which requires Muslims to fast every day for a month until sundown that day.
“It’s really hard, but also I have to get used to it,” Kheir said. “I had to learn to keep myself hydrated before I ran, especially after I started to do so many miles. But I’m proud of my faith. It’s very important to me. I just decided that I’m not going to let anything stop me.”
Kheir had a fine cross country and track and field career at County Prep, setting all sorts of school records, when she had to endure another slice of adversity.
After Kheir’s sophomore year, the Hudson County Schools of Technology, namely High Tech in North Bergen and County Prep, where Kheir was already established, decided to eliminate their athletic programs.
“My first reaction was shock,” Kheir said. “I wondered where I would end up. I wondered what would happen to all my hard work. I knew I wouldn’t be running for the same school and not have the same teammates. I was really worried that it all might be over.”
A provision was installed where students of the Hudson County Schools of Technology could still compete in scholastic athletics, as long as it was with the school in their home district. Since Kheir resided in the Heights, it meant that she would have to compete for Dickinson.
“I never thought it would turn out like that,” Kheir said. “All I ever wanted to do was compete for my school, to show what I could do. I was really upset. It was actually torture at first, having to go from one school to the next, getting on I didn’t know this would happen.”
However, Dickinson girls’ cross country coach Antoinette Wilkins, a former track and field standout at the school, was ready to embrace Kheir.
“We were building a team and I knew we could use her,” said Wilkins, who earned All-County status for Dickinson in four events in 1985. “I knew she could help us.”
Wilkins was not worried about Kheir fitting in with her new Dickinson teammates.
“The other girls loved her,” Wilkins said. “She fit in really well. She comes from a great family and she’s very coachable. She listens to me well. The others accepted her right away. There were no comments about her faith. If you’re good, like she’s good, no one cares what you’re wearing. You can be wrapped in toilet paper and it wouldn’t matter, as long as she could run.”
And there’s no denying that Kheir can run. She was the Hudson County Track Coaches Association outdoor champion in the 400-meter dash last spring, but she was determined to do well in her final cross country season.
Last Saturday, Kheir went with her Dickinson teammates to compete in the Brett Taylor Invitational at Darlington Park in Mahwah. The Rams competed in the Varsity Girls’ A race and Kheir was third overall in 19:47, setting a new school record in the process.
“I was so happy to finally break 20 minutes,” Kheir said. “It’s my senior year and I want to be able to leave with great memories. I want to show everyone I can be a good runner and represent my school.”
Although she represents County Prep as a student and Dickinson as an athlete.
“I’m running for a new school and I’m used to it now,” Kheir said. “It was tough at first. It’s easier now. Having two coaches like Coach Wilkins and Coach Downes has really helped me. I want to be the one that everyone in the county has to look out for. I’m putting it all out there.”
“I think she’s peaking now,” Wilkins said. “She worked real hard in the summer and now she looks stronger and healthier than ever. We push her a lot, but she’s going to be fine. I’m quite sure that there were days that she hoped County Prep was able to keep their program. But she’s done well with the transition. I know it wasn’t easy for her, but she’s come along well.”
Kheir is hopeful to keep running right into college. She is looking to attend St. Peter’s College in the fall and study to become a physical therapist. There have been some bumps in the road, but Fawzia Kheir has survived.
“All I can say is that I guess I’m a pretty strong person,” Kheir said. “I just wanted to be the best runner I could be, regardless of everything else.”

Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com
Read more: Hudson Reporter - SCOREBOARD 10 16 2011 Kheir blazing the trail as county’s top female cross country performer County Prep senior competing for Dickinson carries torch for Muslim runners

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