Zahra Nemati’s original plan was to compete in the Olympics at taekwondo. A tomboy in her youth, she loved the physicality of the martial art, quickly won her black belt and made the Iranian national team. Then, aged 18, she got hit by a car. Her spine was shattered and she lost the use of both legs.
Thirteen years later and Nemati is at her first Olympic Games. She has not made a Lazarus-like recovery; she uses a wheelchair to get around, which makes navigating the cracked pavements and high kerbs of Rio a particular trial.
It also makes her stand out from every other athlete in competition. None of them will be returning to Rio in September to compete in the Paralympics as well. That is what is on Nemati’s agenda, when she hopes to defend the Paralympic title she won in London in 2012, when she became the first Iranian woman to win a gold in either the Olympics or Paralympics.
Nemati’s Paralympic gold was in archery, not taekwondo. Below-the-waist paralysis put paid to her dreams of being world No1 in a sport based around kicking someone else in the face. It was not easy to accept she could no longer do the sport she loved, she recently told a Japanese documentary crew. “As a taekwondo athlete, not being able to use my legs was like a pianist losing their arms,” she told WowWow TV.
After winning in London she said: “I wanted to show the Iranian youth, especially girls, that the Iranian women are no worse than others, and we may even win the Paralympic and receive medals. I wanted to break the stereotype and I’m very glad that I did it.”
In another first, she was chosen to be the flag-bearer for Iran at Friday’s opening ceremony in the Maracanã stadium, leading out a team dominated by men.
Though winning another Paralympic gold is a realistic target, Nemati dared to dream big before making her Olympic debut, despite ranking 49th after her qualifying round at the Sambódromo on Tuesday. Though far from a favourite, she insisted she was going for gold: “The most important thing is to believe in yourself, then anything can come true,” she said.
Determination has always been Nemati’s strong suit. That and not feeling sorry for herself. After her accident, she refused to mope about being miserable, her mum, Fatemeh, told the documentary: “She was always smiling. Never complained or cried. Can you believe that?”
The only bad thing about having Nemati on the squad is that she makes everyone else look lazy, one team-mate told the WowWow director: “I get embarrassed because Zahra is always training even when her able-bodied team-mates are tired. She really encourages us,” he said, somewhat sheepishly.
When it became clear that Nemati was going to have to switch sports, it was on the archery field that she found her new home. She picked up her bow in 2007, three years after her accident. “Archery made me strong — and taught me the meaning of strength,” the 31-year-old said in the documentary. “When I was 18 I lost the ability to walk in a car accident. I was close to losing my life. But I had a chance to live.”
The London Paralympics were special to Nemati for reasons that transcend sport. The night she won gold she got engaged to another Iranian para star, fellow archer Roham Shahabipour, and celebrated in the Olympic village with the rest of the national squad. The couple had met at an association for athletes many years earlier. They had a lot in common: he too had been born without disabilities. A former electrician, he damaged his spine in 2001 when he was hit by a falling pole.
Only a very select group of athletes have competed in both an Olympics and a Paralympics in the same year. Oscar Pistorius is the most famous, having done the double in London 2012, now notorious for all the wrong reasons. The last archer to take part in both was Italy’s Paola Fantato at Atlanta 1996.
Nemati qualified fair and square. She won her Olympic place last year with a superb performance at the 2015 Asian Archery Championships in Bangkok, Thailand, where she won silver in the women’s recurve.
When she was pushed on to the fake grass at the Sambódromo on Tuesdayyesterday, Nemati looked calm and composed beneath her tight white headscarf and glasses. She started well, scoring a maximum 10 points with her first arrow against the Russian, Inna Stepanova. The sparse crowd quickly took sides, greeting the Russian’s first winning set with near silence and then cheering the Iranian wildly when she won the second set with an eight and two perfect 10s. “Archery needs a calm heart,” Nemati said beforehand.
Alas, it was not to be, and Stepanova won three sets to one. Afterwards Nemati was too tearful to talk straight away. Her translator coaxed her round and she answered questions from reporters. “I did my best but my opponent was really good,” she said. “That’s why she beat me.”
It felt different from the Paralympics, she said. “The difference is the stress that I had here. The Olympics are more stressful.” Asked what message she would like to send to other people with disabilities around the world, she perked up: “Don’t let disability defeat you.”