Sareh Javanmardi said she enjoys the “inner peace and focus” when on the shooting range. But something else makes the sport “more charming” for the Iranian Paralympic champion.
“Competing next to men in mixed 50m pistol SH1,” she said. “Despite all the difficulties I faced, I still claimed the gold medal while the other medallists were both men. Having this gold medal around my neck represents the impressive capabilities of women in shooting.”
When the 32-year-old made history by becoming the first Iranian female Para athlete to win Paralympic gold in the sport, she continued a trend being seen in Iran.
Four years ago, her archery compatriot Zahra Nemati became the first ever Iranian female to win a Paralympic or Olympic gold.
Nemati was the only female Paralympian to claim gold of the 10 Iran took at London 2012.
At Rio 2016, three of Iran’s eight gold medals were won by women.
For Javanmardi, her achievement not only signifies the empowering nature of sport for Iranian women and girls, but also simply females in a male-dominated sport. Seven of the 12 shooting medal events in Rio were won by women.
She did not recognize the challenges of being a woman in shooting Para sport until she lined up at competitions.
“There were more recognized male athletes from different parts of the world that I could not even think of winning a medal,” she said. “I tried to prove to myself and to my country that nothing can exclusively be at the possession of any group. I demonstrated that a woman can keep up with men and compete at the same level with them and win medals. When I started mixed 50m pistol SH1, I heard that Korean male athletes have the world records. But I showed at different competitions from Incheon 2014 to Rio 2016 that a woman can achieve medals also.”
The Paralympic champion left Rio 2016 also with gold in the women’s 10m air pistol SH1, an event she took bronze in London, joining Nemati as role model in their country.
Referring to Nemati as a “dear friend,” Javanmardi said she is inspired by the Para archer’s competitiveness to compete not only alongside Para athletes but also able-bodied archers, breaking down a sort of a double-barrier.
Masoud Ashrafi, Secretary General of the National Paralympic Committee (NPC) of Iran, spoke with a wide smile recalling the iconic image of Nemati carrying the Iranian flag during the Olympics Opening Ceremony in Rio.
“This was very eye catching and very, very special for Iranian people especially females because they saw how important their role can be,” Ashrafi said. “This itself was quite telling not only at a national level but an international level. Models like Zahra, Siamand Rahman and Sareh would be good ambassadors to promote sport and Paralympians.”
Ashrafi said it has been the NPC’s goal to increase the number of female participants at the Paralympic Games. The nation saw seven females participate at London 2012 to 23 at Rio 2016, an increase Ashrafi explained was part of a four-year programme that they tweak each Paralympic cycle.
“In my view females in Iran are more in need of using something like sport for motivation and progress in life,” he said. “In general for disabled and male and females it is very important to have a motivation tool and sports is a very good motivator. We want to help stop the progression of their condition but also give them a lot of aspiration and hopes for future. Iranian females are less willing to come forward, but we can demonstrate that this would be a good platform for them. And Zahra and Sareh are good role models for that.”
Nemati had no doubts that she has seen Iranian females feeling more confident competing in sports alongside male athletes.
“Certainly! Especially considering that there have been a bunch of recent success of female athletes at international events and also the progresses achieved for women in Para sport. I can see this happening currently,” Nemati said.
Javanmardi also acknowledged that she is not the only athlete in her country paving a way toward equality. She mentioned Iranian Olympic shooters such as Najmeh Khedmati, Mahlagha Jan Bozorg and Elahe Ahmadi raising the profile of women in the sport.
“I see all these athletes as pioneer shooters in Iran, and they are motivating more people in a way I have never seen in the past,” she said. “After every competition I attend, more women come to me and express their enthusiasm about shooting and they ask about how they can start shooting in Iran. Seeing Iranian women highly keen in shooting makes me excited.”