Sometimes words fail to convey a person’s true spirit no matter how hard you try. Zahra Nemati is one such person.
Born in April 1985 in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman, Nemati took up taekwondo when she was only eight. Ten years later, in 2003 she suffered a spinal injury during a road accident and both of her legs were paralyzed. After spending two months in the hospital, she returned home in a wheelchair. This would have been the end of a sporting career for most people, but not for Nemati.
On Friday August 5, Nemati will lead Iranian athletes as flag bearer during the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She is the only Iranian woman ever to have won a Paralympic gold medal and the only Iranian athlete who has qualified for both the 2016 Olympics and the 2016 Paralympics. She is also the only Iranian athlete who has received the coveted Sport Accord's Spirit of Sport Individual Award in 2013. She is the first Iranian athlete to be named athlete of the year by the International Olympics Committee.
Maybe it is too soon to say that Nemati is the only Iranian athlete to have won medals at both Olympics and Paralympics, but this possibility is not so far-fetched.
“When I found myself in a wheelchair, I knew that my life had changed,” she says. “But what tortured me was my mother’s grief. I wanted to do something to prove to my mother that I was still alive and lively. I wanted her to believe that this disability was not going to stop me.”
“I pretended I was completely fine and happy to not make my family suffer,” Nemati told NBC News in 2014. “But deep down, I was suffering a lot.”
Nemati’s new life started with physiotherapy and then hydrotherapy. Soon she found that doing her daily chores became easier. Nemati and several other disabled people participated in sessions at the Pouya Spinal Injuries Society. Then her life changed again.
“Over there I met a man who completely changed my life’s trajectory,” Nemati says. “I came to know Raham there. Like me, he had been paralyzed in an accident and we could understand each other very well. We started on the same road — first at the Pouya Society, then in sports, and now in married life.” They were married in London during the 2012 Paralympic Games.
A Happy Choice
Raham Shahabipour was not an athlete, but when he learned that before Nemati had done taekwondo for 10 years before her accident, he decided to find a sport for both of them. He chose archery.
“Six months after I started archery, I matched the national records,” Nemati says. “But because of my physical condition, I was told that I could not go to the competitions. At that time, there was no archery team for disabled women.”
Mahmoud Khosravi, president of the Iranian Paralympics Committee, and Robab Shahrian, deputy sports minister in women’s affairs, opened the way for Nemati by sending her to international competitions for disabled athletes. Between 2010 and 2012, she won 10 medals for Iran at international events. The most important of these was the gold medal at the 2012 London Paralympics for Women's Individual Recurve Archery.
“I still cannot believe it,” she says about the day she was presented with the gold medal. “I remembered all the difficult days that I had gone through. I remembered all the pain of my mother. Eight years after that accident, I was now the world champion.”
But not everything has been rosy. Two years ago, when Robab Shahrian visited Nemati at her home, she was moved to tears. She found out that neither the federation nor the Sports Ministry had paid this history-making champion for nine months. She learned that Nemati and Shahabipour had difficulty paying for their basic expenses, but were too proud to complain.
Now Zahra Nemati, the same young woman whose sports career seemed to have ended when she lost the use of her legs, is poised to make history by winning a gold medal at the Rio Olympics.
Iranians can take pride when she bears their flag for the whole world to see.