Kermanshah, Iran – The journey to last week’s freestyle wrestling World Cup in Iran was an exhausting one for the US team — and not only because of the long trip from the US to the Iranian city Kermanshah, with two stopovers in Frankfurt and Tehran.
It was the diplomatic hurdles that had stressed Team USA out. The wrestlers were caught in the most recent escalation between Tehran and the new Trump administration, and their visas did not come through until the last minute.
“It was difficult. There was a period of time where we were like, are we going, are we not going?” US Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs told CNN. “It was difficult being pawns in the game of political powers that were essentially deciding our fate.”
Iran initially denied visas for the American wrestlers in retaliation for the Trump administration’s travel ban against people from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.
It wasn’t until US courts put the ban on hold, and officials from both the American and Iranian Wrestling Federations put in some lobbying, that the visas were finally granted.
“[The Iranian] Wrestling Federation lobbied on our behalf and I think their government as well looked at it as an opportunity to show their graciousness and their respect for the sport of wrestling,” Bill Zadick, head coach of the US’s freestyle wrestling team, told CNN during a training session ahead of Thursday and Friday’s competition.
Team USA missing the World Cup would likely have been a disaster for the sport. The US, Iran and Russia are wrestling’s international powerhouses.
“A World Cup without the Americans would not have been a real World Cup,” Rasoul Khadem, the head of Iran’s Wrestling Federation told CNN on the sidelines of the World Cup in Kermanshah, about 400 kilometers (248 miles) west of Tehran.
Unlike in politics, in wrestling there is a great deal of awe and respect between the US and Iran.
“I have been wrestling overseas for three years now and every Iranian I have ever come in contact with has been extremely respectful, extremely polite,” US Olympic gold medalist Kyle Snyder said during a training session.
“[While] there’s a little bit of turmoil politically, you definitely don’t see that within the sport. We respect each other as competitors and as people,” Snyder told CNN.
Wrestling is one of Iran’s favorite sports and many of team USA’s wrestlers are celebrities here.
“In America we are misfits. In Iran we are heroes, so it is really cool to see,” Burroughs said.
Read the full story at CNN.