Breaking Boundaries: Coach Maryam

We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to wrestling's unsung heroes around the world. Coach Maryam was introduced to us through our friend, Hooman Tavakolian of Tavak Partners, a sport diplomacy company. Hooman was kind enough to make the introduce us to Coach Maryam to get to know her better and spread her story. 

What was your upbringing like?

I was born in Tehran. I am the middle child. I have an older sister and a younger brother. My father was a wrestler. My mother was a teacher. We come from a working class family. I was raised around the wrestling mat and [my father’s] involvement. Because of this, I always wanted be involved, but on the coaching level.

What introduced you to wrestling, and who ended up teaching you?

I was introduced to the sport by my dad. I used to watch him wrestle, practice and compete. My father taught me the sport. Also, let it be known that wrestling is very popular in Iran, and is part of the culture. We are all raised in the environment and are aware of the sport as it's the national sport.

What inspired you to coach?

I was inspired to be a coach because of my interest in the sport. My dream and many of the girls’ dreams in Iran is to have wrestling for women in Iran. When Mr. Khadem created wrestling for females, I jumped on it quickly, got involved, and wanted to give back. I was lucky to have learned the basics from my dad. I was just waiting for the opportunity to jump in.

Who have been your biggest supporters in your wrestling journey?

My biggest supporters has been my mother. She always supported me and believes in equal rights for women. She always pushed me to chase this dream. My dad wasn't really too big on the idea, but now he is better since it is now available for women in Iran. Also Mr. Tavakolian (Hooman Tavakolian, Tavak Partners) has been supporting all of us and Iran wrestling, for males and females.

Has teaching and coaching others in wrestling helped your technique and understanding of the sport?

Coaching others has helped me drastically in learning and improving my technique. I also watch a lot of technique videos online from YouTube, and try to learn from great wrestlers. I am a big fan of Helen Maroulis, she is so good.

How has wrestling affected you personally?

Wrestling has helped me become stronger and get my character stronger. I also was introduced to a whole new world. It brought me to a new environment; sometimes good, and sometimes bad. I used to be a sensitive person, but wrestling has helped me become a stronger person and individual. Wrestling has helped me get thicker skin and taught me how to deal with various people.

What keeps you motivated throughout hardships in wrestling?

I get my positive energy from my students. They motivate me to continue when things don't go smoothly. As you know, it's a new sport for us, so there are many growing pains. But, I love when I see my students are so dedicated. They keep showing up for practice, even when they don't have gear, shoes, or appropriate training opportunities.

Have you competed? If so, how often?

I have competed locally in my town, and in my state. In my state I took first place. This was in the early stages of when women’s wrestling was created. I was very good in the Wu Shu style‒ I made it to nationals and the league championships. I also was very active in Kung Fu and Futsal (indoor soccer). Overall, I loved contact sports and competing. I refuse to lose.

Would you recommend this sport for everyone, or do you think it requires a special type of person to fully appreciate the sport?

I recommend this sport only to those who are dedicated. The sport is for those who have goals, big goals. I recommend wrestling to girls who are driven and don't accept loss. Girls that when they are told NO, they  challenge it and ask why, or say yes I can. Done for success, I mean. Also for those who need to be built, I  recommend wrestling to them. I recommend for them to try it, to help them overcome issues and challenges.

What do you think of the advances made for women’s wrestling in Iran (all styles)? 

I believe it's great. I believe it's moving forward thanks to the hard work of Iran Federation. But, there are growing pains. I am confident there is a bright future for Iran. Iranian women are full with national pride. They train hard and want to be the best.

It is reported that there is a critical need for more female wrestling coaches. What do you think is the best solution?

Yes, we need better coaches. Currently men are not allowed to coach us. We need more training by greats like Kori Icho from Japan. I also believe we need joint training camps. This brings us experience and interaction. We are being coached with limited knowledge. We have a coach for our national team from Ukraine. But we need more great technical coaches for local gyms to help us so we can learn and teach our students the correct techniques.

What is the typical background of the women you coach?

Most females who are in this area come from families who's fathers and brothers wrestled. All come from working, blue collar families. Most wrestlers are 18-25 years old. There are older wrestlers, but they are not allowed to compete on the national level. We hope age restrictions will change so older women can one day compete on the national level. Iran is planning to start a cadet and junior national team as well as the sport grows in the next few years.

How is belt wrestling tied to the success of bringing Classical wrestling to Iranian women?

Belt wrestling has helped on the macro level, but I believe it has also hurt wrestlers in learning. As you know, it is hard to change one’s style. Belt wrestling has its own ways and techniques. Unfortunately many have brought their belt wrestling style to classic wrestling.

What has been a major pushback for female wrestlers in your country?

Lack of support from sponsors and help with growing sport. We need more funding, and I also think getting rid of the age restrictions will help. There are many many interested females who are above 23 and who can be great.

What do you think the impact will have on muslim women throughout the world?

This is great progress for all muslim women. Many girls around the world also shared the same dream of wrestling. This has now created an opportunity for all to participate and help empower themselves. It is also great that they have their own specific clothing, so they are not bothered by cultural and religious restrictions on gear. I am very happy for the future of the sport and the opportunity for ALL females, not only muslim ones. Together we are united and can grow the sport.

In closing I would like to thank the Iran Wrestling Federation and Dr. Rasoul Khadem for all their support and in helping make this dream a reality for the many girls in Iran, and now around the world. We still have a long way to go, but I am certain and I feel confident that with your help we can build awareness and support. Thank you for your interest in us and thank you for writing this article to build awareness. We are all sisters on and off the mat.