He knows what he wants. Sarina Salehi’s determination is in every word she utters.
“I want to be a world champion and win a medal at the Olympics,” he told DW. Salehi’s words are even more remarkable because the young wrestler is only 14 years old. Salehi knows, that words alone are useless in combat sport. What matters is the hard work and the sweat that dripped onto the wrestling mat.
Salehi now trains six times a week in Krefeld, near Düsseldorf, focusing on strength, conditioning and technique.
“Leg attacks and spins” are his specialty, he reports. He recently used them to beat the reigning European champion in his age group. However, his future in the game is uncertain. As an Iranian wrestler, he is caught between two worlds.
Escape from Iran
Salehi grew up in Baneh in northwestern Iran, part of the country’s Kurdish minority. Her father Soran was a successful wrestler himself and his daughter also discovered the same passion early on.
“However, freestyle wrestling is banned for women and girls in Iran because of the veil requirement,” explained Salehi’s father.
And so, Salehi switched to karate and won the western Iranian championship in his age group. But he was not allowed to wrestle, prompting his parents’ decision to travel to Greece via Turkey in 2019 and apply for asylum in the European Union.
On the balcony of his home in Greece, Salehi trains with his father. For the first time, he was able to continue his sport in a club. “When I first saw the wrestling mats in a hall, I was in awe,” Salehi said.
It’s a fascination shared by many Iranian women and girls, but for whom an Olympic career in wrestling remains blocked. Only after high pressure in 2015, the regime in Tehran allowed the “Alish” discipline, called belt wrestling, where athletes compete against each other in full-body suits and is mainly performed in countries who is Muslim.
In 2019, Iran’s national women’s team won the world championships in their first attempt and has been cleaning up internationally ever since.
Rasul Khadem, president of the Iranian Wrestling Federation at the time, commented on the success: “Wrestling is more than wrestling for Iranian women. It is resistance and struggle against unteachable attitudes. in this sport was a loud cry with the message: ‘We can, we can, we can!'” Soon, Kahdem disappeared from his post.
For Mehdi Jafari Gorzini, a board member of ASV Mainz 88, a wrestling club in Mainz that is the current German team champion, discrimination against women can be seen in the very popular sport of wrestling in Iran. The politician and publicist once fled the Islamic republic itself.
“The approval for ‘Alish’ only serves as an evasive maneuver to calm the violent protests in the country,” Gorzini told DW.
High hurdles for Salehi
Sarina Salehi follows what is happening in Iran, the ongoing protests as well as the treatment of women in wrestling.
“I saw a lot of what happened there. It makes you sad. The situation in Iran is not good,” he said.
At the same time, Salehi is fighting for his own dream in Germany. “It was difficult for him and for us,” said Hans-Georg Focken, his coach in Krefeld. “He has no chance to compete for Iran. And since he doesn’t have a German passport, I can’t take him to one of the local selection squads.”
This is a problem. Salehi has already had success in international tournaments, but he is not eligible to compete in the German championships, nor in the European or world championships.
“The refugee team, supported by the DOSB (German Olympic Sports Confederation), is a possibility,” said Focken. But he believes that it is too difficult for Salehi to make the team, and also that his youth counts against him.
But female wrestlers are tough. With his family granted permission to stay in Germany for now, Salehi hopes German citizenship will soon follow. Then nothing can hinder his athletic career beyond the mat. In the meantime, he also wants to continue learning.
“In terms of ambition and his physicality, he’s on top,” Focken said. “But the basic things are still lacking, like the agility of how to dictate and win a fight against different opponents.”
To develop further, the 14-year-old is in the best hands in Krefeld. After all, Aline Rotter-Focken, the coach’s daughter, is the first German to win Olympic gold in wrestling in Tokyo in 2021.
The club is trying to give Salehi a foundation for a similar career. He himself wants to pay for it in the future. With performance and – if it all works – with precious metal.
This article was translated from German by Jonathan Harding.