Iranian Women Learn Top Kayaking Skills in U.S.

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Iranian kayak team.

Iranian kayak team members Kimiya Vaezi and Roxanna Razeghian, with their coach, Katayoon Ashraf, and American coach Chris Wiegand. The Iranians have been training in the U.S. this summer, hoping to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. Rolando Arrieta, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Rolando Arrieta, NPR

Fifteen-year-old Roxanna Razeghian is wedged into her long, sleek, fiberglass kayak, getting ready for her first slalom kayaking race. She's on a man-made whitewater park in McHenry, Md., about three hours from Washington, D.C. Pre-fab rocks and re-circulating water form powerful hydraulics and eddies throughout the course. A couple dozen slalom poles hang over the water.

At the starting dock, Razeghian waits for her cue to go. She paddles toward the first drop, loses control of her kayak and capsizes. In a matter of seconds, she rolls the kayak upright and gets back on track — a seasoned move in this sport.

But Razeghian is not a veteran kayaker. Until a few weeks before, she had never paddled a course like this. She is part of a fledgling kayak team from Iran that has come to the U.S. to gain experience and training.

The tour came about because of the efforts of Razeghian's coach, Katayoon Ashraf. Ashraf had long wanted to form an Olympic-caliber slalom kayak team for Iranian women. She hoped to boost exposure to the sport in the Muslim world. But training on Iran's rivers was not possible.

"We have very beautiful natural rivers there," says Ashraf, "but we don't have any slalom courses."

So she contacted Chris Wiegand, a kayak coach in Colorado who ran a training program last summer with kayakers from China. Wiegand agreed to work with her. But when he brought the idea to the State Department and the U.S. Olympic Committee, Wiegand says, "they told me I was crazy."

Wiegand says the officials opposed bringing in the Iranian kayakers because of the tensions between the two countries. But he managed to convince them.

"This is not about government," Wiegand says. "This is about a people-to- people collaboration through sport."

Ashraf, Razeghian and two other Iranian teens received expedited visas. For five weeks, they got to train on rivers across the U.S. They kayaked in Colorado, North Carolina and Western Maryland. It was their first time paddling in big wild water.

But rocks and rapids weren't the only obstacles. There was the issue of clothing. The women's religious beliefs ruled out the typical shorts and tank tops.

Wiegand contacted sponsors to make sure they had the right equipment. For instance, he needed helmets that could accommodate a scarf underneath.

The sponsors came through. Companies donated not only helmets, but also breathable, lightweight apparel that covers the arms and legs.

In this race, the Iranians finished at the bottom of the rankings. They will need a lot more practice in order to qualify for the games in Beijing.

But their 5-week training program in the US ended on a high note. That's because they all went back home with new skills and lots of donated kayaking gear that might help them reach their Olympic dream. And the alliance between the two countries proved that collegiality between Iranians and Americans is possible — at least in the sporting world.

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