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Zahra Nemati is undoubtedly one of the most inspirational women in sport. When, at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, she became the first Iranian woman to win a gold medal at an Olympic or Paralympic Games, Nemati became a role model across the Muslim world - not only for athletes with a disability, but also for female athletes in general. She has been widely credited with breaking down barriers and encouraging more women to take up sport.
However, the modest Nemati would never describe herself that way. “I don't feel such a thing. I cannot be a role model yet,” she told Rio2016.com. “But I try to be the best I can. I hope that nobody in this world feels disappointment, especially women and people with an impairment. Disappointment should not have any place in our life.”
Such a positive outlook surely helped Nemati to overcome the challenges she has faced. She was a black belt in taekwondo, a sport she took up aged five, before suffering a severe spinal injury in a car accident in 2008.
“I felt great disappointment when I found out that my legs were paralysed. But I decided to be powerful. My disappointment and deficiencies vanished because of my hopes. I said to myself, ‘I can’, and this was the starting point. I said goodbye to taekwondo and hello to archery. The pinnacle of my disappointment in taekwondo was the start of my happy days in archery. In fact, my medals in archery are the medals I wished for in taekwondo.”
Nemati, 28, has won multiple medals and set numerous world records, often competing with – and beating – able-bodied archers. Winning gold and setting a Paralympic record in the individual recurve W1/W2 at the London Games brought her story to a global audience. The following year she was awarded Sport Accord’s Spirit of Sport Individual Award, which recognised her contribution to using sport as a tool for positive social change. Nemati dedicated the award to “my people, Iranian women and all Muslim females”.
Asked about how her success has encouraged more Muslim women to take up sport, Nemati said: “It makes me happy. I'm so proud of this, and I believe God helps me.” She says the support of her family – especially her husband, archer Roham Shahabipour – has been vital to her success.
And Nemati clearly understands the role that sport can play in changing perceptions and breaking down stereotypes. “When countries gather for a competition, they introduce their culture and nation through their behaviour, attitudes and feelings, and also learn more about the other countries' beliefs, ideas and culture. These understandings absolutely change our viewpoints toward a country.”