By Charles Lam
By R. Scott Moxley
By Taylor Hamby
By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By LP Hastings
By Taylor Hamby
When Abedi left the restroom and began walking toward the exits, he saw a man selling an Iranian newspaper that clearly opposed Khomeini. Abedi told the man his name, that he was also Iranian and that he was one of the wrestlers who defected. The man appeared apprehensive. Abedi assured him they were who they said they were, and the man went to a pay phone to make a call. He then told the wrestlers to wait outside the terminal, that a van was coming to pick them up.
It turned out the newspaper seller and his friends were members of a revolutionary group that advocated the overthrow of Iran's government. "If you support us, we will support you," Abedi remembers being told. The wrestlers agreed, and a press conference was organized. Wearing suits purchased by the group, the wrestlers made their endorsements of the opposition group and shared their stories of why they so desperately did not want to return to Iran.The wrestlers were set up in a house outside Madrid. The location was kept private, due to concerns Khomeini would seek them out. The Spanish government granted the men political asylum and provided financial support, as did the opposition group.
For the next three years, the men returned to a semi-normal life. Abedi started taking Spanish classes and began training again. He even picked up a job coaching wrestling at a local club.
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Abedi wanted to prolong his stay in Spain, but the Spanish government wouldn't sign a long-term contract with the wrestlers. He began investigating other options. He had heard Canada and the United States were accepting refugees, as long as they had a sponsor saying they had a job and housing lined up. He managed to track down sponsors in Vancouver and another in San Jose.
He opted for California. In December 1985, he boarded a flight bound for San Francisco.
In the spring of 1986, Abedi enrolled at San Jose State University, even though his grasp of the English language was minimal. He would sit in class, completely confused by what was going on.
Before wrestling season began in the winter, Abedi and Asgari—who had made his way from Madrid to Missouri to San Jose—followed a coach to Cal State Bakersfield, where they were both given scholarships. As freshmen, they placed well at the Division II tournament and were recognized on the All-American team.
The pair transferred again before the next school year, enrolling at Cal State Fullerton. In the process of the transfer, after the NCAA reviewed his transcript and realized he couldn't produce a high-school diploma (since he had no documentation from his life in Iran), Abedi lost his remaining athletic eligibility and his chance for scholarships. He found and held two eight-hours-per-day jobs in order to make his tuition payments, intent on pursuing his teaching credential. He worked for the university recreation department and helped one of the wrestling coaches, who worked with the gas company and worked on mobile homes. "I didn't sleep much," says Abedi.
Abedi always wanted to compete in the Olympics. He had figured if it were going to happen, he would be wearing the colors of Iran.
Despite losing his collegiate eligibility, he continued to train. In 1988, at 25, he was in the best shape of his life and won his weight class in a regional tournament, which qualified him for the U.S. Olympic Trials. But he wasn't yet a citizen, and tournament officials informed him he wouldn't be able to compete.
Disappointed, he refocused on his schooling.
One evening in late spring of 1988, he got a call from one of his sisters. She, two of his other sisters and his father were stuck in Istanbul, Turkey. The rest of the family had already managed to get out of Iran. Their father had sold all of the family's possessions in order to get his remaining children out. But when they got to Turkey, they'd been robbed of their money and didn't know what to do.
"I promised I'd come get them out," Abedi says.
* * *
Less than two weeks later, Abedi was locked up in a jail in Germany, while his four family members were escorted to a detention center in Austria.
After a wrestling friend willingly handed over his passport and identity to Abedi, he traveled to Turkey with just less than $2,000 and a handful of passports. While there, he'd found an Iranian smuggler who gave him a good price for getting his family from Istanbul to Germany, where they had relatives in Frankfurt: $1,800 and four Iranian passports. But things went wrong along the way, and the family members found themselves abandoned in a hotel in Vienna, Austria. Abedi decided to escort his family across the final border to Germany. While sitting in a borrowed car, with his family's clothing in the trunk and the four trying to cross in the dark, a police officer found and arrested Abedi; his family members were later found and detained, as well.
When the next shift of officers came on, Abedi noticed that one of them had "cauliflower ear"—a clear sign the man was a wrestler. They started talking and became friendly. The officer looked over Abedi's file and determined there was no reason why he should be held. Abedi was released, and the officer arranged for him to get his car from the impound.