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It's easy to lose Reza Abedi as he wanders among the students at Dana Hills High School: He's only 5 feet, 5 inches tall. His raspy voice stands out, though—a thick Iranian accent lingering even though he has lived in California for almost 26 years.
It's early April, and inside Abedi's classroom, each of the 36 desks is occupied. In the back of the room, one girl sits on the floor, leaning against a wall. Another walks around barefoot, while classmates around her try to construct cubes using a sheet of white paper. Each panel of the cube will have a Spanish subject pronoun.
Abedi approaches the girl sitting on the floor; she's clearly not working on the project.
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"Are you spending your time wisely?" the 48-year-old asks, smiling.
The walls are cluttered with typical Spanish-class accouterments: a black-and-white sombrero, Garfield the Cat speaking the language, the national flag of Spain, and various posters emblazoned with conjugation rules. Next to the whiteboard is the teacher's desk, stacked high with papers. A pair of red-and-black Adidas wrestling shoes sits behind the desk. The wall above it is covered with plaques, certificates and photos: Teacher of the Year, Coach of the Year, All-American, a diploma from Cal State Fullerton, and a dark-haired man in a red wrestling singlet with his right arm being raised in victory.
But Abedi's most precious memento isn't in his classroom. It sits in a frame on a shelf near his bed at home. Though it is now secured on black felt, behind a square pane of glass, it was once wrapped in a T-shirt and tossed out a window, before spending years tucked among his youngest son's Legos.
It is the gold medal that Abedi won at the 1982 Military World Championships in Venezuela, at which he defeated an American in the 127-pound freestyle-wrestling final. "The day that I stepped on that podium and they gave me the medal, my whole body was full of joy," he recalls.
But not all his memories of that day are happy ones. The medal is also a reminder of the day he left his country and his family behind.
The evening after the award ceremony, the last day of the six-day tournament and just hours before he was supposed to board a plane back to Iran, he and three other Iranian wrestlers defected. They were the first Iranian athletes to do so.
When he looks at the medal and sees his reflection in the glass, a very different man from the one whose neck it hung around stares back. His hair is still black, but it's thinning. The pencil mustache is gone. The wrinkles on his forehead and near the corners of his eyes are growing in number; they're especially noticeable when he smiles, which he does all the time.
In June, his students, wrestlers, siblings and fellow Iranian-Americans will be able to read his story, thanks to a book called American Wings; Iranian Roots. The project took three years and was entrusted to a close friend and former co-worker, Kristin Orloff.
And though he would very much like to, Abedi has never set foot back in Iran.
"I would never let him," says Kamron, Abedi's oldest son. "He really wants to go back, but deep down, he knows he can't. We both know what can happen."
When he got onto an American bus and was driven away, he and his three fellow wrestlers were hoping to find freedom from the shackles of the fundamentalist Islamic regime that had come into power in Iran, radically changing the country he once knew.
"In Iran," he says, "I couldn't be who I wanted to be."
* * *
Abedi is a generous host. An invitation to his impeccably clean two-story home in Dana Point comes with Persian tea and pastries. He came from little, but he gives whenever he can—just like his mother, Nimtaj.
He's the fifth of 10 brothers and sisters. His mother spent her days tending to the house and her children. His father, Abbas, worked with the local government in the family's hometown of Kermanshah. Both parents were illiterate.
The family led a simple life. Water was gathered from a local well. Sometimes, there was electricity, but kerosene lamps were usually the source of heat and light. There was always food and a bed to sleep in, though it was shared with three or four siblings. On hot summer nights, the boys would sometimes sleep on the roof.
Abedi smiles when recounting his childhood. There was one bike for the 10 children, and his only toy was a little red sports car. "It was a good life," he says.
By the time he was 11, he had committed himself to wrestling. He showed promise very early. A month after he started, he went to a national tournament, competing in his age group. He advanced to the finals, where he came up against a stronger and more experienced kid, Mashadi Aghaee. "He kicked my ass," Abedi says.
In all his years wrestling in Iran, Abedi never lifted weights. By his teenage years, he was doing as many as 400 push-ups, 500 squats and countless sit-ups each day. The gym where he trained had climbing ropes, which hung from the ceiling, two stories up. The wrestlers would race to the top and back down, anywhere from 5 to 10 times, using only their upper bodies to ascend.