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Athletic Diplomacy Between Iran, US


The ongoing tension between the United States and Iranian governments recently spilled over into the sports arena. Iranian kayak coach Katayoun Ashraf was fired from the Iranian National Federation team for bringing three teenage athletes to the U.S. to train. They sought extra training in hopes of representing Iran in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. But now the athletes' position on the national team is in jeopardy. Yet the story of these athletes' pursuit of their dream remains an inspiring one. VOA's Ernest Leong has more.

The Wisp summer resort in the U.S. East Coast state of Maryland offers its patrons dramatic contrasts in aquatic entertainment. There are calm waters here on Deep Creek Lake. But slide off a ramp, across the pond and under the bridge and suddenly you are paddling through churning whitewaters.

A fun way to enjoy a beautiful summer afternoon. But these female teenage athletes did not come here just to have fun. They came to the U.S. from Iran in late June, to learn all they could about kayaking. At the time, they hoped to represent Iran in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The Persian kayakers traveled to the U.S. to train in whitewater conditions. Their American teacher was Chris Weigand, Director of the Front Range Paddle Association. "They arrived with no experience whatsoever, and within eight days, had to race in the Junior Olympic slalom qualifier race [in Colorado]. And they ended up doing extremely well, considering the adversity they had to overcome."

It all began with an e-mail from Katayoun Ashraf, the former [Iranian] National Federation coach. Weigand says Ashraf was looking for a way to get Iranian women to the Olympic podium in the next six years.

Ashraf said the first step in the process was for the team to learn to conquer their fear of the rushing waters. "To use their mind in the way the body obeys their mind. This is what your coach, one of your coach(es), did. He helped me to change the mind of girls, from scary to brave girls, who like to be on waves."

The Iranian kayakers' newfound courage on the water caught the attention of 2004 Olympian Brett Heyl. "I'm really impressed by how fearless they seem. They're out on some big water, and they never let up."

On this day, Weigand spent time reviewing some basics on the calm waters of Deep Creek Lake before taking the team on the whitewater course.

Shadi Kalantar was one of the athletes in training. "It's like the stream of life. You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. You just keep going. You have to trust the water."

While in the U.S., Coach Ashraf expressed a vision that went beyond competition. "My aim in coming to the U.S. goes beyond just learning kayaking techniques. It is the relationship between humans all over the world. To show, when people help each other, we can make greater progress."

The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - Latin for "swifter, higher, stronger." While the teenagers may not be able to fulfill their dreams of Olympic glory, their hard work and determination have shown they can live up to the highest standards of the Olympic games.

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