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.