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From Iran To Arizona To Tokyo: The Journey Of Paralympian Shahrad Nasajpour

Refugee athlete Shahrad Nasajpour, originally from Iran, trains in Tuscon, Arizona for the sport of discus. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Refugee athlete Shahrad Nasajpour, originally from Iran, trains in Tuscon, Arizona for the sport of discus. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As the Olympics in Tokyo wind down in about a week, the Paralympics are just around the corner.

Later this month, the Paralympic Games will showcase some of the world’s top athletes who live with disabilities. One team competing in the games is the Refugee Paralympic Team, which debuted in 2016 in Rio.

Discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour is among the six athletes on the team this year. He’s an Iranian refugee living in Arizona who was born with cerebral palsy.

Nasajpour says he wasn’t thrilled by the idea of throwing discus when he was first introduced to it.

“I didn’t like it that much because it was hard to spin the discus,” he says. “It’s all about technique, it’s from your toes to your fingers. I didn’t like it because I couldn’t throw well.”

But Nasajpour was determined and continued to practice throwing discus at a training camp he was referred to, he says. It took him a few weeks to learn the basics of the throwing sport but he eventually found enjoyment in it.

Nasajpour became so good at throwing that he traveled to two international competitions with an Iranian team in 2011, he says. Eventually, he left the team in 2015 and fled Iran to seek asylum in the U.S.

“One of the reasons I left was because I was deprived of [being a part of] the [Iranian] national team because I didn’t comply with the religious stuff on the team,” Nasajpour says.

The Iranian team was strict about its rules and would mandate its players attend church, despite anyone’s personal beliefs, he says.

Nasajpour came to value the freedom to express one’s political, social or religious views when he moved to the U.S. He found that being recognized for your work as an athlete is what mattered most in the game.

“I think that making the Team USA for Special Olympics is the hardest [thing] in the world because everyone going for trials is at least top eight in the world,” Nasajpour says. “But at the end of the day, only three people will make the team. So, it means the performance mattered — nothing else.”

And just like any other athlete, Nasajpour experiences the limits of human strength. To adapt to this, he says it’s important for him to recognize his weak points and focus on using the stronger points of his body. But sometimes, he says he thinks athletes have to go beyond that to reach their fullest potential.

“We have to push our limits, we don’t need to think about it,” Nasajpour says. “If your mindset is ‘I cannot do that,’ or, ‘This is my limit,’ you cannot progress much in your life.”

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Other adjustments Nasajpour has had to make in his life include the ways he stays in touch with his family in Iran. And although he’s grateful for messaging apps that have allowed him to communicate with his family, he says fleeing to the U.S. alone has been a difficult experience.

“I have to look out for everything,” Nasajpour says. “You have nobody to have your back when you live alone. You have no family. Of course, we make friends, but you have to watch for everything by yourself. It makes [life] harder.”

But he has a special message for the 80 million people in the world today who have been forced to flee their homes: “Be resilient in difficult times. You will hear a lot of no’s on a regular basis, but don’t take that no as an answer,” he says.

Nasajpour says he hopes to earn U.S. citizenship status in less than two years and a spot on Team USA.

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayXcaret Nuñez adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.