Arezou Motamedi grew up covering her head and her body as is the Islamic custom.
That didn't change when she became one of the top female athletes in Iran, first in swimming, then in kayak. When she competed for the Iranian national team at the world kayak championships a couple years ago, the only skin showing was her face and her hands.
Wednesday morning she will paddle down the Oklahoma River with her brown hair blowing in the breeze.
The name on her shirt — USA.
The five-day Oklahoma Regatta Festival will bring hundreds of rowers and paddlers to Oklahoma City. There will be athletes who've competed and triumphed at the highest levels. There will be collegians and youth who aspire to greatness.
None of them have a story quite like Motamedi.
“I'm trying to have a life here,” she said earlier this week as she sat outside the Devon Boathouse after an early-morning practice. “I miss home. That's my country.
“But I came here to do this.”
Born and raised in Tehran, the bustling capital of Iran, Motamedi became a swimmer when she was 5 or 6. Her mother, who had been a swimmer, passed along her love to her only daughter.
As Arezou (pronounced Are-ra-zoo Mota-mee-dee) got older, she swam for the Iranian national team. But because of strict Islamic laws, the Iranian women competed only against other Islamic countries. No Olympics. No world championships.
Then Motamedi was introduced to kayaking. One of her swimming coaches was a member of the Iranian national kayak team.
“Oh,” Motamedi thought, “I want to do that.”
She had no lofty expectations at first. She thought the sport looked fun and just wanted to learn how.
The first few months, she learned how to keep her balance in the kayak and how to paddle it, neither of which are easy tasks. But after a few more months, Motamedi heard about a national team trial and decided to give it a try.
She didn't make it.
“But I was close,” she said.
Motamedi decided to start training seriously, and three or four months later when another national team trial came around, she not only made the team but also had the best times.
She gave up swimming and focused on kayak.
“That was a time that really motivated me,” Motamedi said.
She traveled with the national team to competitions around the world. Germany. Poland. Korea. China. Malaysia.
During those trips, she had a chance to compare. How did she stack up against other paddlers? How did her training facilities match up with the ones she saw? She quickly realized that Iran lacked the facilities and the support that other countries had.
If she ever wanted to reach her potential, she would have to leave Iran.
Motamedi began researching options on the Internet, and eventually, she determined that USA Canoe/Kayak's national high-performance center in Oklahoma City was the best option. The facility was world class. The coaching was top notch.
She reached out to Shaun Caven, the center's director.
After meeting at a competition in Hungary, Caven decided to bring Motamedi into the program. She would have to take an English proficiency test, but once she passed, she would go to graduate school at Oklahoma City University, work at the boathouse and live with one of the other kayakers.
Motamedi was issued a green card and began preparing for her move to the United States.
Because she knew no English, she sought out one of the few sources of the language in Iran.
Reruns of “Friends”.
By the time Motamedi came to the U.S., she was actually able to understand some English. But she had no experience reading or writing it — her native language, Farsi, actually reads the opposite way, going from right to left — so she spent several months studying English before she took her proficiency test.
“And she was disappointed because she got something like 89 or 92 percent,” Caven said. “I don't think I could get 92 percent.”
“In fact, I'm positive I couldn't.”
Now, Motamedi, who has a bachelor's degree architectural engineering, is a full-time MBA student at OCU. She admits that reading and writing English can still be a struggle in master's level classes.
“But it's good,” she said. “I like learning new things. I like to be busy.”
She is that. In addition to school and work, the 24-year-old trains for two or three hours twice a day.
The results have been obvious. Her 500-meter time was 2 minutes, 16 seconds when she arrived in last summer. In a little over year, she has shaved 20 seconds off that time.
It was enough to earn a spot on Team USA. Given a release by the Iranian kayak federation, she had to wait a year before competing for the U.S., but earlier this summer at the International Canoe Federation World Championships in Germany, she wore the red, white and blue for the first time.
“That was one of my dreams coming here,” she said.
Caven said, “It was good to see her represent the country. I don't think that's the end of her representation.
“I don't think she's anywhere near her potential level.”
Motamedi cannot compete for the U.S. in the Olympics or in Olympic qualifiers. Only U.S. citizens are allowed to do so. But Motamedi hopes to meet that qualification some day.
She wants to become a U.S. citizen.
It would be another amazing chapter in already amazing her story.
“She could've come here and bombed. She could've gotten overwhelmed,” Caven said. “When you think about what she's actually done, it's pretty remarkable.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.