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Pumping Iron!

She is a Persian-American athlete who was both a state and national Tae Kwon Do champion, and one of the top amateur boxers in the world.
Now, barely two years after having her second child, Kina Elyassi has set a new goal for herself, to become a professional bodybuilder. And those who know her have little doubt she can and will reach that goal. VOA's Ernest Leong reports.

Bodybuilder tournaments are popular in America. While audience members shout encouragement to their favorite contestants…

ANNOUNCER: "Quarter turn to the right."


The bodybuilders smile and flex their muscles for the judges who are grading them.

Participants can be penalized if they do not correctly follow the announcer's instructions, which can sometimes be confusing.

ANNOUNCER: "All right, ladies. Now, what I want you to do is, number four, walk around behind the line behind you."

SPECTATOR: "What!" (laughter)

At this tournament, held at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC, some of the loudest applause was reserved for one female bodybuilder.

Her name is Kina Elyassi. Her goal is to excel at bodybuilding, for herself, and women everywhere, especially in Iran. Elyassi was born in Iran, where women's rights are a sensitive, contentious issue. "There (are) so many talented women in Iran, but you can't change culture overnight. It's something that takes time. That's something I can't do. But what I can do back here is to try and help them, and educate them by living a healthy lifestyle," she said.

A lifelong athlete, Elyassi's athletic career appeared to be on the downswing after injuries and giving birth to her two children. Bodybuilding changed all that.

"The reason I picked up bodybuilding is, one, I had gained so much weight with my second pregnancy. And I wanted to regain myself emotionally and, mostly, physically back."

Somewhere on the path to regaining her athletic form, Elyassi became passionate about bodybuilding. As with other sports she has played, Elyassi felt driven to be the best at it.

Jimmy Choy is Elyassi's publicist and a long-time friend. "Next thing I know, she's breaking, like, records in the bench press. And she's had interviews by other media personnel, saying here's a Potomac Mom, pushing five thousand pound (2200 kilograms) cars, or leg pressing 1,800 pounds (800 kilograms)! For a female with her body frame, that's unheard of."

Before bodybuilding, Elyassi was an amateur boxer and martial artist, excelling at both.

Elyassi gets her love of sports from her father, Mahmoud, who also plays several sports. In a way, Elyassi was following in her father's footsteps. "There were six girls in the family and one boy, my brother being the youngest. And my dad really wanted a boy. So he kind of handpicked me and showed me the ropes of pretty much every sport, from wrestling to boxing to tae kwon do."

Mahmoud Elyassi is also a martial arts expert. Knowledge of martial arts was a necessary skill in his former line of work: during the 1970s Mahmoud was chief bodyguard to Iran's King Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. Mahmoud wanted to pass along his knowledge and love of sports to his children - especially his daughter Kina. "When I was, look at Kina, she was very interesting, for body, and strong kick. So she liked to continue the martial arts, or whatever. And then, from six or seven, she was always with me."

Elyassi's physical abilities, and her strong desire to win, have served her well. She has won more than 700 awards in boxing and martial arts. Now, she is looking to add some bodybuilding awards to her collection.

Elyassi placed second in this Washington tournament, good enough to qualify for Team Universe, a national level tournament held in mid-July. But second place is not good enough for Elyassi. Just two days after the tournament, she was back in the gym.

Sean Rhoden is one of Elyassi's trainers. A bodybuilder who once finished second in Team Universe, Sean sees in Elyassi considerable physical and emotional strength. "Kina is a different individual. She's not your average housewife. She's basically hardcore. It has to be loaded up or nothing at all."

Like most working mothers in the U.S., Elyassi must balance her professional career with raising her children. It is a challenge, but like other challenges in her life, one Elyassi is willing to accept. "It's tough. Especially if you have a family, and you have to have a career and work out the same time, it's tough. But if you find time, and you have the desire to achieve what you want, you can always find the time to do it. And you can do it."

Throughout her life, Elyassi has been driven by her desire to be the best, for herself and as an inspiration to others. Perhaps one way to better understand Elyassi can be found in her own words, from a 2001 interview: "The fruit at the end of the branch is the sweetest, but reserved for those that have the courage to reach for it."