By Marjan Golpira, Tehran Times
Sara Abdolmaleki is a strong and determined young woman whose life story will empower anyone who is weighed down by life’s trials and tribulations. The twenty-three year old resident of Karaj has proven that one can persevere and overcome even the most earth shattering obstacles in life only to emerge with resilience.
The unconventionally beautiful and cheerful Abdolmaleki has always been an anomaly. Unlike most young adults her age, her recreational activities did not include frequenting restaurants and shopping malls with friends, but rather a focus on athletics and sports activities.
Sports always played a central role in her life. Her father, who had aspired to become a professional athlete, never had the opportunity to realize his dream, but passed on his passion for sports to his daughter.
Highly energetic with a hint of hyperactivity, Abdolmaleki began taking karate and Kung Fu lessons at the age of five and continued on until she turned 10.
Not academically inclined, the only course she ever looked forward to in school was physical education. “The only class I would always get a perfect grade in was my gym classes,” she says.
After her tenth birthday, the family relocated and she took a short break from sports but got back on track with classes in kickboxing and cross-country running later. Then, when she turned 15, Abdolmaleki decided to drop out of school and follow her dreams of becoming a professional athlete.
However, her mother urged her to get her high school diploma in physical education while she competed in sports. In order to do so, she had to commute from Karaj to Tehran where they offered the courses.
During her second year in high school, Abdolmaleki was introduced to handball which she pursued and eventually excelled. Soon after, she began playing rugby which became her favorite sport of all.
“No sport could zap my energy like rugby,” she giggled during a recent interview.
It took her a year to pass entry into the national team and from there she made it to the Asian competitions when she was 17 years old, the youngest member of the team.
Eventually, she earned a high school diploma and was accepted at Azad University in Tehran, majoring in physical education.
Never one to rest on her laurels, she aimed for international coaching and sports arbitration and qualified in both. Before long, Abdolmaleki was coaching two groups, teens under the age 17 as well as adults in rugby.
“None of my adult students showed up to the class the first day when they had found out their coach was younger than they were,” she says. Eventually, the student body showed up for the class.
The young athlete continued her studies in college, worked as a coach in various centers and partook in competitions. By the time she turned 21, she was at the top of her game earning a nice income. Additionally, Abdolmaleki gained fame in her field and was allowed the privilege of travelling around the world for work.
“I felt I had achieved all I ever desired. My dreams had all come true. I practically had no more dreams left. I became bored, and I pleaded with God to open up a new route in my life, making it exciting and challenging once again.”
And her prayer was indeed answered.
A die-hard rugby enthusiast, the athlete decided to travel to the western province of Kermanshah to watch a rugby competition up close and learn more about her favorite sport. She had a relative in Kermanshah with whom she could stay while there.
Despite her mother’s objections, she drove from Karaj to Kermanshah in her Peugeot only to find out the competition was cancelled.
She spent the night in Kermanshah and the next day as evening fell, despite numerous warnings, she headed back to Karaj, insisting that she had an important final exam the following day. And practically with two more exams she would graduate from college with an associate’s degree.
And this is when tragedy struck.
The last thing she remembers that night was driving on Buein Zahra Road in Qazvin province. It was pitch-dark. There were no traffic lights, no guard rails, and no traffic signs to warn drivers of sharp twists and turns on the road. At one bend, her car got off track and took a seven meters nose dive down an embankment.
The driver of the car riding behind her saw the accident and went to her rescue. The only way to get her out of the car was to drag her through a window, but this was a HUGE MISTAKE at that moment. Moving her suddenly made a spinal cord injury much worse and Abdolmaleki was rendered paralyzed, the worst possible outcome from an accident any athlete could face.
She was taken to a nearby hospital where she was diagnosed with a ruptured lung, mild brain injury, three broken ribs, a broken wrist, and a spinal cord injury. She even met with death on the first night in the hospital. But not quite.
“Nurses told me they lost me, but on the way to the morgue my vital signs returned and I was transferred back to the hospital ward.”
One month prior to the accident, the young athlete had had a dream, in which she was sitting on a green wheelchair, similar to the one she uses now.
She recalls waking up from the nightmare in hysterics and quickly feeling her legs to find them intact and functioning. The nightmare reoccurred a few days prior to the accident.
Eventually, the rugby coach was transferred to a hospital in Tehran where she received physical therapy and special care. Her athletic body assisted her treatment.
During her month-long hospitalization many Iranian officials including Hassan Qazizadeh Hashemi, Iran’s Health Minister, as well as sports icons like Ali Daei, once Iran’s top soccer player, visited Abdolmaleki at her hospital bed.
Abdolmaleki’s hospital bills were staggering and her family could no longer afford them, especially when they found out that their daughter had not been insured by her employer, despite earlier claims to the contrary.
Then, Mehrab Qasemkhani, an Iranian scriptwriter, posted an Instagram message pleading for donation, and donations, indeed, poured in and Abdolmaleki’s entire medical expenses and her extensive operations were paid in-full.
Immediately following her release from the hospital, she was admitted to a rehabilitation center where she underwent a month of physical therapy and learned to cope with her difficult condition.
Once she checked-out of the hospital and was transferred home, the devoted athlete had to start from ground zero. She needed assistance in all rudimentary tasks such as getting dressed and bathing. It was the endless love and encouragement from her parents that gave her the strength to persevere and move forward.
“My mom acted as if nothing had happened. She not even once got depressed over my condition and that was empowering to me.”
Abdolmaleki gradually accepted her disability, although at first she assumed it was temporary.
After a year of physical therapy she woke up to the reality that she wanted to return to a more normal life. That was when she decided to attempt a new round of sports activities.
She began with track and field where she would throw discus, but a few months in, she realized that discus was not her calling. “The sport was just not dynamic enough for me.”
She then tried her hand at kayaking where no Iranian woman has ever won a medal in Paralympic Games.
She feels being in a kayak is what she wants because she feels more like a “normal athlete” and not a disabled one.
She began her training at the Azadi Sports Complex on the Azadi Lake in Tehran where for the past four months she has been attending training sessions directed by her coach. Thanks to her father’s efforts she has not missed a day of training so far.
Today, Abdolmaleki is aiming for a medal in kayaking, first in 2018 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in August in Portugal, and later in the Paralympic Games in 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.
During her time with the reporter, Abdolmaleki got dressed and with the aid of her coach and father, she got into a kayak and put on a demonstration for the camera.
She held the paddles firmly in hand and paddled away from the Azadi Lake pier and onto the sparkling lake water where she met with flocks of birds that flew off when paddling close to them.
Sara Abdolmaleki’s story is truly an inspiration to thousands of people whose lives are suddenly upended by tragic accidents. Like the birds she encounters on the lake, this adamant young woman has shown that even after tragic injuries one can indeed “fly” again, but in a different way, with her arms propelling a kayak forward.
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