Reza Abedi's Greatest Escape
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.
"Are you spending your time wisely?" the 48-year-old asks, smiling.
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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.
Some days before school, Abedi; his brothers; one of their close friends, Ardeshir Asgari; and other wrestlers would go to Taq-e Bostan, a mountainous area a few miles from the family home. It was once a popular vacation destination for Persian kings. Ancient carvings were etched into spots in the rock. It was an ideal training spot. The wrestlers would sprint up the trails for cardio, or climb the steep rock faces for strengthening. When the weather wasn't too cold, they would run upstream, knee-deep in the creek.
Then everything in Iran changed. Supported by the United States, the ruling shah was actively trying to modernize the country, but the shifting ideology—along with the involvement of the U.S.—upset a growing fundamentalist Islamic population. A series of demonstrations and protests ran the shah out of Iran, enabling Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to return from exile in February 1979. When he did, he restructured the government as an Islamic republic. Almost overnight, men began growing out their beards and women were required to be in hijabs whenever they left the house.
When Abedi applied to university, he couldn't sufficiently prove his commitment to and knowledge of Islam, so he was denied admission. He was heartbroken; it seemed his hope of being a teacher was gone forever.
Since he wasn't a student, he had to enlist in the military, joining the country's air force. Abedi was forced to fight in the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, for a leader and a government he no longer supported.
"Before the revolution, I went to mosque, I prayed, I did all the religious things you're supposed to do," Abedi says. "But after the revolution, I got turned off. I went completely the other way. I couldn't deal with a bunch of zealots, a bunch of fanatics who tell you what to do. They try to make you act like sheep."
Abedi was placed in low-risk positions and granted time away from his military duties to train. While in Dezful, a town nearer the front lines of the war, he worked as a driver, transporting pilots from the barracks to the base driver. He later asked to be transferred to a position that would bring him nearer the front lines; he spent a month working in an ambulance, collecting bodies and parts of bodies.
But with the national wrestling tournament approaching, his coach with the air force insisted he focus on training. A month later, at the national tournament in Tehran, he advanced to the finals and won a spot on the team heading to the Military World Championships in Caracas, Venezuela.
Days after his win at nationals, Abedi walked into practice and was delivered disturbing news by a mullah, who oversaw the team. "He told me I had to wrestle another guy," Abedi recalls.
His competitor had connections in the government and was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful security-and-military organization loyal to the regime. The wrestler's name was Mashadi Aghaee.
"I was shaking when they said his name," Abedi says.
Seeing his opportunity to compete at the world championships slipping away, Abedi wanted to complain, but it was clear there was no alternative. "[Aghaee] knew a lot of people, and that's one of the reasons they wanted to take him over me—because I was a nobody," he says.
He was given a week to prepare.
With fellow wrestlers, military officials and a few mullahs watching, Abedi went down a few points early in the match. It seemed defeat was imminent. But Abedi caught Aghaee in a vulnerable position and pinned him, winning the match and seemingly requalifying for the world championships.
Instead, the mullah declared the victory a fluke and demanded a rematch. A week later, the two wrestled at the same facility in front of the same crowd, and once again, Abedi won. But the mullah insisted on a third match.
This time, an angry Abedi complained to his coach and officials. It was out of their hands, they said. The only hope was to keep wrestling—and winning.
While training at one of the local wrestling clubs, Abedi heard that Aghaee had a bad knee. He had been taught by his father "to win with respect," but desperation was setting in. Abedi felt he was being cheated once again by a government that seemed to reward only those who were obedient.
A week after the second match, the wrestlers met on the mat. Abedi shot for Aghaee's bad knee repeatedly. He so dominated the match that Aghaee gave up. He lay on the mat, while Abedi had him straddled and refused to continue. Abedi stared intently at the mullah, his hands on his hips.
After showering and changing, he entered the wrestling room, where the mullah approached him. "Buddy," he said, "make sure you bring two pictures so we can get your passport."
* * *
As he boarded the flight to Venezuela in early August 1982, Abedi had no plan. When the plane landed in Paris for a layover, the scene in the terminal was startling. Coming from Iran, Abedi was shocked to see women in short skirts and loud colors. "I had never seen porn in my life," he says in a whispered tone. "The people looked half-naked to me."
Once in Venezuela, other teams were put up in nice hotels, but the Iranian team, at the insistence of its country's officials, was forced to stay in military barracks. Abedi was in a room with his brother's best friend, Asgari.
Quietly in the showers or in private moments between matches, Abedi began sharing his intentions with a few teammates. Two other wrestlers, both named Abbas, confirmed that they, too, would not return.
Abedi didn't know whether to speak with Asgari, who was with the Revolutionary Guard. He knew Asgari's family was loyal to Khomeini.
Secretly, Asgari had been hatching his own plan. He hadn't considered defecting until seeing the life he was missing beyond Iran. "When we got there, I saw those naked girls on the beach, and something clicked in my brain," he says, laughing over the phone from Nicaragua, where he has lived since 2002. "Then Reza came and told me he was leaving. When he told me, I freaked out; I thought he was reading my mind."
Knowing nothing more than a few numbers in English, Abedi started talking with members of the American team, using one of his teammates as a translator. They agreed to help the four Iranians.
Abedi remembers the awards ceremony, the gold medal around his neck, his gaze locked on the Iranian flag and tears in his eyes.
After nightfall, Abedi wrapped his medal in a single set of clothes and dropped the bundle, along with a pair of shoes, out the barred window of his room on the fourth floor. Asgari, who won silver in the 149-pound freestyle division, did the same, tucking his medal into his wallet.
Wearing only their underwear, Abedi and Asgari approached the guard at the stairs and said they were going down to the kitchen. The guard let them go.
Once downstairs, they snuck out into the warm night. They found their clothes and made their way to the American team bus. They waited for the two other wrestlers, and then the four lay on the floor in the back of the bus. Abedi remembers those several tense minutes as the bus drove toward the gate. "I just closed my eyes and asked God to get us out," he says.
The guard at the gate waved the bus through.
* * *
For the next six months, the men managed to set up a place to stay, courtesy of an Iranian businessman, and then a Japanese expatriate. Some nights, when the locals weren't around to feed them, they would search through trashcans outside restaurants.
"We couldn't speak the language, we had no money, and we had no real place to stay," Asgari recalls. "We were surviving day by day, night by night."
In December 1982, Abedi, Asgari and the heavyweight Abbas turned themselves in to the Iranian embassy, claiming they were "young and stupid" and that they made a mistake. The other Abbas decided to stay in Venezuela.
"I knew they would never let us just take back what we had done," Asgari recalls. "We knew there would be a public execution. We learned later that was exactly what they had planned—they were going to prosecute us and hang us in the plaza in Tehran. They announced that on TV; my mother saw that. They were going to use us to teach a lesson to others. We were the first [athletes] in the history of our country to defect."
That day, Abedi was able to call his family in Iran through the help of a friend he'd made. When he heard his mother's voice on the other end, he was overrun with emotion. "I got choked up; I couldn't find words," he recalls. Even today, when he talks about his mother, Abedi stumbles over his words. After he defected, he never saw his mother again; she died in the winter of 1986.
Before boarding the flight, Abedi found a can opener and hid it in his bag. They knew there was not a direct flight from Venezuela to Iran; the only hope would be to escape during the layover in Madrid. Abedi intended to use the can opener as a weapon—either to defend himself or to slit his wrists.
The flight made an unexpected stop in the Canary Islands, and then continued on to Madrid. The delay was a twist of good fortune: The plane was redirected to a national terminal instead of the international terminal, where Iranian officials were waiting. Before disembarking, the wrestlers agreed to leave the plane separately to increase the chance of evading whoever was waiting.
Abedi went first, keeping his head low, his eyes constantly scanning the crowd. He made his way to a nearby restroom. One by one, the three wrestlers appeared there. No one was waiting. Abbas threw up in one of the toilets. "It was a bad feeling," Abedi says. "We knew that if we got on that plane, we were dead."
Years later, Asgari learned that the connecting Iran Air flight they were expected to be on was delayed for hours, while officials searched the airport for the men. Eventually, the flight was canceled.
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.
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.
He returned to Austria. At a gas station one evening, he started chatting with the attendant. After some small talk, Abedi told the man he was trying to smuggle his friend's family across the border to Germany. The man sympathized and told him to return after his shift.
They had dinner at his grandmother's house, and then they took a drive. The man said he had some friends who might be able to help.
When they walked into the apartment, Abedi immediately second-guessed his decision to trust the man. Three men were sitting on the couch in front of a table, on which lines of cocaine were arranged on a mirror beside a couple of handguns. The friends were drug dealers. "I thought they were going to kill me," he recalls.
The man introduced Abedi and told his story. Maps were laid out, and the men pointed out various possible routes. They were constantly mixing up which route they took across the border in order to evade officials, but they had a few they had not yet used that they believed would work for Abedi and his family.
Abedi made his way to Salzburg. The ground was covered in snow, and there were points where he had to climb. Beyond the German border, he located a train station.
Abedi says he managed to sneak into the detention center where his family members were awaiting their release and walk out the front door with them. It was the middle of winter, and they had no warm clothes. Abedi had been wearing the same pair of jeans and a red sweater since he left Brussels. They began the hike anyway.
The pace was slow. His sister had broken her foot, and it was hurting; plus, all his years as a smoker were catching up to Abedi's father in the high altitude and zero-degree wind chill. Midway up the mountain, his father collapsed. Knowing the only hope was to get into Germany, Abedi put his father over his shoulder and carried him, just as he used to do while training for wrestling in Iran. Every half-mile, the group would stop to rest; after four hours, the train station was in sight.
Abedi raced back to his car. He was running hard and nearing exhaustion and at times found himself rolling down the snow-covered hills. He managed to get to the car in 45 minutes. After composing and cleaning himself up, he drove through the border, bought train tickets and watched his family members pull away from the station, headed for Frankfurt.
Forty-five days after his sister's initial call, Abedi arrived back at Los Angles International Airport. When he passed through customs and saw his girlfriend waiting, he dropped to his knees, touched his forehead to the ground and cried.
* * *
In 1992, he accepted his first teaching job. That first year at Ayala High in Chino Hills was tough. Along with teaching a few periods of Spanish, he also helped with the wrestling team.
One weekend in the summer of 1994, while visiting his then-wife's parents, who had just bought a house in Dana Point, he passed by Dana Hills High and saw a sign for a job fair. He loved the pace and aesthetics of the city, as well as its proximity to the beach, so he decided to give it a chance. The principal liked Abedi but didn't have any openings that fit his credentials. "I was disappointed, but at least I still had a job," he explains.
A month later, the principal called with an offer: two periods of Spanish, two periods of P.E. and the opportunity to take over the struggling wrestling program. He accepted the job and has been with the school ever since.
His first year there, eight guys came out for the wrestling team. By the late '90s, when the team was dominating competitions in the South Coast League, the program regularly had 80 coming out every season. "Ninety-five percent of the guys who came out as freshman had zero experience in wrestling," which made Abedi's job more difficult. Over time, he groomed a set of coaches—all former athletes of his—and implemented a brutal raining regime.
"My dad runs one of the toughest practices around," says Kamron. "When people see Dana Hills, they know who we are because they know about Coach Abedi. The program is what it is because of him. If he quit today, the program would be done."
Early in his coaching career, Abedi would line the entire team up against the wall and take on each one. "I'd kick all their asses," he says, with a huge smile and a chuckle. "I always save the heavyweights for last."
Now, he lets his assistant coaches do the hands-on work. He'll step in and demonstrate, but live wrestling is rare.
As it has since he was 11, wrestling consumes Abedi's life. Beyond the high-school team, he also just started up a youth program, the Dana Point Wrestling Club. Two days a week, kids from 4 to 13 years old come into the wrestling room, and Abedi, Kamron and other guys from the team work with them. He's hoping this will be the feeder program he has always wanted. Among the young kids picking up the sport is Abedi's youngest son, Kian.
Abedi is at home in the wrestling room. After lunch one recent day, he changes into workout shorts and wrestling shoes. He smiles when a freshman executes a proper leg shot and laughs a deep laugh when a cocky sophomore tries to challenge one of the star seniors, who has little difficulty making the young guy look foolish.
Reflecting on the past 19 years of his life, Abedi looks out on the chaos, bodies clinging to bodies, sweat pouring, blood occasionally dripping. If he had never left Iran, it's quite likely he would have made the Olympic team. But he doesn't second-guess himself. "I had to give up on one dream," he says, "for another dream."
This article appeared in print as "His Greatest Escape: High-school wrestling coach Reza Abedi gave up his Olympic dreams to flee Khomeini's Iran."
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