Top Iranian Greco Roman wrestler Mehdi Zoodashna in Derry this summer
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A highly decorated athlete in his own country, Mehdi Zoodashna topped the podium in the Greco Roman category of the tournament in Manchester in what was the 30-year-old’s first time to compete since arriving in Ireland three months ago.
“That is the dream, to compete in Paris and hopefully win an Olympic medal,” he said.
Over the summer the wrestler will volunteer with the North West Migrants Forum, providing lessons to young people at their summer scheme.
Mehdi took to the mats in Manchester in the colours of the Barbarians Wrestling Club. He got involved with the Carrickfergus organisation after spotting them on Instagram. Incredibly, when he first approached them he hadn’t even a suitable pair of shoes to train in.
Barbarians got him kitted out and he repaid their kindness by creating a little piece of club history – becoming their first Greco Roman British Champion.
From the western Iranian province of Lorestan, Mehdi and his wife Diana Amini decided to flee their home country in March.
Iran’s human rights violations have been well-documented as have its poor economic conditions and lack of political and social freedoms.
The couple have been living in a hotel in Holywood for the past three months.
“Wrestling in Iran is a heritage sport and my father was a wrestler,” said the champion.
“He encouraged me from an early age to take up the sport and when I was nine I started to learn. My father became my coach.”
Mehdi Zoodashna entered his first competition when he was 16. Three years later he caught the eye of the Iranian national coach. Over the past decade he has collected a vast array of national and international wrestling titles and trophies. In more recent years he has doubled up as an MMA fighter.
As a Greco Roman grappler he has competed and won tournaments all over the world including in Kazakhstan, Egypt, Turkey, Armenia and now Britain.
“I was on Instagram one day when I found the coach of Barbarians, Stuart. I contacted him but I had nothing here, no clothes or shoes or anything. The club got me what I needed and they registered me for the competition in Manchester.”
Mehdi’s route to the final in the Wright Robinson College arena was virtually unblemished, winning four matches on the trot.
His last bout saw him matched against another Iranian asylum seeker from London – a further indication of just how big the sport is in the country. His opponent was a world silver medallist and was favourite to overcome his fellow country man.
But the Barbarians competitor had other ideas.
“I was happy to beat him but I’m always confident that I’m going to win. I must win.”
Looking to the future, Mehdi and Diana – herself a renowned sportswoman and international diving coach - hope to make Northern Ireland their permanent home.
With regard to his chosen sport, he has his eye firmly fixed on further success.
“There is another MMA competition in London in August and I hope to participate in that.
“It was nice to win the gold in the British competition and make history. Ultimately my goal is the Olympics next year,” he said.