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Sports

Exiled Skating Champion: I was Blocked at Every Turn Because I was a Woman

January 31, 2022
Payam Younesipour
15 min read
Farnaz Koohshekaf was the top roller speed skater in Iran before emigrating to Austria aged 21
Farnaz Koohshekaf was the top roller speed skater in Iran before emigrating to Austria aged 21
As a young woman, Koohshekaf was blacklisted by Iranian state TV because of her nose piercing
As a young woman, Koohshekaf was blacklisted by Iranian state TV because of her nose piercing
She and team members had to train in full mantle and were blocked on several occasions from competing abroad
She and team members had to train in full mantle and were blocked on several occasions from competing abroad
"I saw that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I spent out of my own pocket, I wouldn’t get anywhere. I decided to go."
"I saw that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I spent out of my own pocket, I wouldn’t get anywhere. I decided to go."
Koohshekaf is now a member of the Austrian national team, awaiting her citizenship
Koohshekaf is now a member of the Austrian national team, awaiting her citizenship
"I did have contact from my coaches [in Iran]. Many called, many said how good I was. Many say I’d made the best decision."
"I did have contact from my coaches [in Iran]. Many called, many said how good I was. Many say I’d made the best decision."

Our appointment was due to take place on a street where I once lived for almost two years. The café-restaurant on the corner, relatively remote from the city center, is a hangout for middle-aged Austrian journalists close to Vienna's social democrats.

There sat a girl in front of me who I knew had left Iran six years ago, having stood on the Iranian championship podium in three separate sports. For two of them she was invited on the national team. She was one of the jewels in Iran’s crown in ‘roller speed skating’, a form of competitive racing in roller skates, reaching speeds of up to 50mph.

Now Farnaz Koohshekaf is building a new life for herself in Austria and competing under the flag of her adoptive country. I spoke to her about how we got here.

***

We tend to need a biography to get us started. Like the office forms you have to fill out every day.

I am Farnaz Koohshekaf, 27 years old. More precisely, I was born on July 31, 1994 in Kermanshah. I lived in Kermanshah until I was fourteen. Then I went to Tehran. I have been in Vienna since I was 21.

And from the age of 27 onwards?

Probably somewhere not as cold as here.

In a conversation we had earlier, you said you’d started training at the age of four and your mother played the most important role in your attraction to sports.

My mother was a sports coach. In fact, she had a gym in Kermanshah and she also trained. My father was self-employed and didn’t have much interest in sports. The same was true of my brother.

Did you just skate from the age of four, or did you engage in other sports too?

Gymnastics, karate, full-contact kickboxing and skating were my main disciplines, but I also won medals in volleyball, basketball and swimming at the schools level. Karate was something else for me. I went as far as the black belt. But somewhere along the way, I felt I couldn’t progress any further. To put it simply, they suppressed me. I came to the conclusion that someone like me, who had no support or lobbyists, should go for a sport that is both individual and [the victor] not determined by the judges.

How old were you when you quit karate?

Twelve. I was serious about skating at the time, but that same year I also wanted to try my luck with other fields in martial art. That's why I started kickboxing. I was 13 then, and with my mother’s consent, I took part in national competitions and became the runner-up. It was great for my age group, but I saw scenes that really scared me there. They placed buckets next to the mat, their [the combatants’] mouths up filled with blood, and they spat the blood into the buckets. Their noses broke in front of my eyes several times. Though I’d been the runner-up, I left this field.

Did it happen to you, the mouth full of blood or your nose or cheeks broken?

No, no, not at all. The set-up was very scary, though. Regrettably, I hit my opponent's face so hard that her mouth filled with blood. I thought, these scenes are not in line with my disposition.

In other words, real skating for you started at the age of 12 or 13.

It started at the age of seven. At twelve, I decided to enter into speed skating. Many people don’t know the difference between basic skating and speed skating. But even speed skating boots are different to regular roller skates. Their body is made of hard carbon, and they have larger wheels. The races are just like cycling, or field and track. You have to move fast. I think I was 14 years old when I first competed in Iranian roller speed skating.

Did you have a coach?

No, I did not have a professional instructor. My mother was a [general] roller skating instructor, but I wanted to get into speed skating. At that time, due to my age, I wasn’t allowed to take part in contests; they only let me sit in on the races as a spectator. There were always a lot of people, and I was just trying to pay attention to the girls' movements. There I saw one girl who inspired me. She was constantly on the podium, coming first in every discipline. I said to myself, I want to be like this girl. When I got home, she was all I could see. I told my family they should buy me some speed skates. I insisted on it for a year. At that time, a Pride car was five million tomans, and roller speed skates cost one million.

You started in contest as a teenager. Firstly, what did you wear?

Girls' skating clothes in Iran are stretchy leggings over which we had to wear a mantle made of the same material. The veil and headband were also required in all disciplines. Of course, this type of coverage is Iran-specific. Outside of Iran, the outfit is similar to cycling gear: shorts and an absorbent top that should have a zipper on the front.

What titles did you achieve in Iran?

I started with difficulty, and reached the national team with much more difficulty. There was no standard racetrack in Kermanshah. There was only a 100-meter slope; I’d wake up at six in the morning before school, put on my boots, and go there; that is to say, I was only practicing for short distances. That was why when first I participated in national competitions, I came third in the 300 meters: I’d never experienced big tracks and long distances. But I was invited onto the national team there. The female roller skaters had an Italian coach, Enio Momni. He told me ‘You can’t warm up with us, but this problem will be resolved’ – because I didn’t have access to the land or facilities. I was 16 years old when I was invited onto the national team, and I was the only person from the counties.

And you stayed in Tehran.

Yes. Because I wanted to continue. I trained for just one year on the standard tracks in Tehran and became the first in the country, and at the age of 18, I won the nationwide girls' championship in roller speed skating. I don’t want to boast; I’m trying to point out the difference, for someone like me who was all about achievement, of having the right facilities. From then until I was 21 years old, I was always a champion, always in the camps of the national teams.

Did you go abroad with the national skating team?

I was sent several times. The Federation prevented the deployment several times. The final time I was not allowed to go, I emigrated. A month later, maybe less than a month after, I left Iran.

Why?

I was wayward. My position is that I do my job on the ground. I didn’t look for a coach, or go to the president of the Federation or head of security to generate handouts. I’d go out there, become a hero, and come back.

When I came back from the 2014 Asian Games, a Ms. Fariba Mohammadian, who was president of the Skating Federation at the time, told me at the airport: "The IRIB wants to interview you. Take out your nose piercing and get in front of the camera. Tell them to film the three planes of your face in such a way that the piercing isn’t visible." I told I couldn’t because the piercing was fixed in. It really was fixed. She didn’t say a word, she went off, and after that I was not allowed to be interviewed by the IRIB camera crews in any tournament. I won the Champions League; the runner-up was interviewed. Even when I got to the national team, the IRIB reporters were still not allowed to interview me.

This wasn’t even important. The main issue went back to the selection of the national team for the global competitions. The Federation had officially announced it would send two people. I was awarded the first place. Ms. Mohammadian said, "We don’t have the money to send the girls this year. The Federation can only pay for the men’s team. Find a sponsor yourselves."

This was nothing new. Every year we’d find a sponsor ourselves, or else, for instance,  the parents would pay for the women’s travel. Then they told us, "You can’t pay out of  your father's pocket. Bring an official, government sponsor, sign a contract." And at what point did they tell us this? We had 24 hours left. It was impossible to find a sponsor for a discipline in which women were bent over all the time, dressed in tight clothes, and without any coverage on Iranian TV or in the newspapers.

But the second team member said, "I’ll bring a sponsor from [National] Petrochemical Company”. They held a meeting with the Federation during the day. Fariba Mohammadian told them it wasn’t just two girls and a coach: one person from the security division, one from the Ministry of Sports, and one from the Federation had to be covered to accompany the team. The sponsor agreed.

That same day, after the meeting, they [the Federation] told us: “There’s no time left to get a visa. The girls’ trip is cancelled.” So how did they get visas for the men’s team, then? If there wasn’t time, why were we asked to find a sponsor? If there wasn’t time, why hold a meeting with the sponsor we brought in? We realized the intention was not to send the women.

Similar things happened to me at the airport [bound for other competitions]. No one was tested for doping in roller skating. But I was tested twice a year. They also sent me to Germany; I’d won the national championship three times in order to join the national team, but the Federation said “We’ll hold a rematch”. A few months after that qualifying match, their analyst told me that when they checked the video footage, they found out that the timer had been tampered with before the race.

In that last qualifying match, I broke my personal record again, and came close to a world record. But I saw that no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I spent out of my own pocket, I wouldn’t get anywhere. I decided to go. And the path I took was dangerous.

Will you talk about the dangerous route you took?

Perhaps later.

A common perception is that a when an Iranian athlete, male or female, emigrates, they’ll have the red carpet rolled out for them – and a passport – in the US, Australia or Canada.

Not at all. Not at all. That was once my belief too, and I understand all those who have such a mindset. I tried to use my sporting background to keep going. But the fact was it had no effect. It had no effect on my survival process.

I struggled for two and a half years. I’d worked really hard in Iran to achieve my goals. But here it was different: different from everything I had experienced. Here, in the beginning, we all have a language problem; a new culture problem. I arrived here at a time when the wave of asylum seekers from the Middle East to Europe was at its peak. Once my residency process was completed, it took me more than a year to find myself again. I didn’t think about anything for a year and a half. Sports and exercise were meaningless to me. I just wanted to survive.

You spent four years of your life away from championship sports.

It took me five years, starting again from scratch. I was below point zero when I arrived in Austria. It took me all these years to find myself.

When I look at your record on Austrian teams, I don’t see you at point zero.

People's expectations are different according to the effort they put in.

Where do you stand in Austrian roller skating right now?

Well, I'm the coach of the Vienna team right now. After all these years, I found a team that would pay me for the competitions, in which I also participate as a player. They pay for my training, equipment and time. I’m also a member of the Austrian national team.

Where did your skating start in Austria?

I’d been looking for a team from the day I arrived in this country. Although I wasn’t well-nourished in the first and second years, I competed. They were very unpleasant to me. They couldn’t accept me. The first competition I did in Austria was a regular indoor one, not even a national one. The referee hit me with a “starting error" twice. I hadn’t made a mistake. But in the second round, she put me behind the other three and asked them, "Do you want me to remove her from the contest?". It was so frustrating. All three of them said no. The referee blew the whistle, I started from behind the line, and I won, more easily than I thought.

Finally we got to the final. In the final race, whoever crosses the finish line soonest wins. That's why many professional skaters raise their legs at the last minute, to get the front wheel to the finish line sooner. I did that. The same referee blew the whistle. She said ‘When you did that, you cut off the second person’. I was a foreigner; how could I protest?

It wasn't until a few years later, at the European Cup, when I got onto the track, that I saw the same referee standing a few steps away from me. We met face to face. I smiled compulsively. She smiled too. I thought it was all over. That same lady did something to me, at that contest, there that she had never done to any other skater. I had reached the semi-finals and thought I’d been eliminated. I took off my skates and watched the races from a corner. Then I saw the stadium speaker read out my name among the semi-finalists. The same lady told the officials, “Because this girl isn’t ready, the second group should go first” – then the first group, in which I had to compete.

A year later, the same lady gave my gold medal to the runner-up. Although I was the champion and had won, she told me that because I was not Austrian, I could not receive the prize. I followed up on it later and they said the referee had been wrong, but they couldn’t do anything.

What medals have you won in Austria over the years?

Too many. If I said I didn’t remember, would you believe me?

Tell us as many as you can remember.

I really don’t remember the number. I’ve won the Austrian national contests maybe 12 or 15 times; I’m really not sure about the regionals.

You are also a member of the Austrian national team, but not in all competitions.

At the moment I can’t play for Austria in the European championships or the global contests because I don’t yet have an Austrian passport. This should be resolved in the next few years. But I can compete in some contests in Europe for Austria.

For many athletes, 27 years old is the peak of their career. What is your vision or goal for yourself? And where is it?

I never think about my age. I think my path is open for as long as I want. I try very hard to move forward slowly but steadily. It’s not important for me to get there quickly; it’s important for me to keep at it once I get somewhere. But the goal, the destination point, the dream... I said this once in Iran and now I’m telling you, when I was 18, I told my mother that once I’d been sent to the world or Asian Games, I’d leave skating for good. I was sent, I came back, but then I kept going. I saw I hadn’t got anywhere yet. I was 18, when I realized that nothing for me has an end. I just want to keep going with the same calm and stability.

You said that when you arrived in Austria, you experienced hardships you’d not faced before in your life. In hindsight, would you emigrate again?

Certainly. With all of its troubles.

You practice here without a veil?

One hundred percent.

Do not men's looks bother you?

No, not at all. Why should they?

In Iran, as a member of the Iranian national team, you had to have a full veil on.

Aha. Got it. Not at all. We practiced with the boys in Iran, and there were no annoying glances even there. Nor here.

Has anyone from the Federation, or past coaches in Iran, contacted you in all these years?

[Laughs] Six months after I left, the Federation's directors realized that I was no longer in Iran. No, no one from the Federation [has contacted me]. The directors change every few months or years. No one remembers which athlete is in Iran or outside Iran, or what her status is. But I did have contact from my coaches. Many called, many said how good I was. Many say I’d made the best decision.

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