Shahrad Nasajpour Won’t Take No For An Answer
by Al Daniel
Throughout his long and winding career as a discus thrower, Shahrad Nasajpour has had a lot of people tell him “no.”
Each time, he’s persisted onward.
So when he looks at the presumptive men’s discus F37 competition at this month’s Parapan American Games and sees a top-heavy group of throwers from Brazil, Canada and Mexico, Nasajpour is not deterred in his quest to reach the podium.
“Tough competition for me,” admitted the 34-year-old Nasajpour, who was born with cerebral palsy. “But I do my best and I believe in myself and I’m sure I will perform well and hopefully make the podium.”
Hope is hard to oppress for Nasajpour. After his dream of representing his birthplace in the Paralympic Games died, he had to take matters into his own hands. Through “no” after “no” in his career, he finally achieved that goal under different banners in 2016 and 2021. And now, as a member of Team USA, he continues on, refusing to say no.
Nasajpour was born in Hamadan, Iran, and raised in Karaj, a city comparable in population to Philadelphia.
He was introduced to discus in 2010. After he saw an experienced thrower launch the discus, Nasajpour knew that was the sport for him.
“Discus is very technical,” he said. “It’s not something everyone can throw even a few meters.”
Once Nasajpour witnessed the sport at a high level, he was all-in, and reaped rewards over the next two years while representing Iran at the world championships.
To Nasajpour, the rapid mastery came from simple determination.
“Perseverance and just learning from failures and not listening to ‘no',’” he said. “If you’re hearing ‘no’ from anybody about anything, it’s not the end of the road. It’s just a challenge, a new challenge.”
He started putting that notion to more personal tests in the middle of the decade. Mandatory religious functions on the Iranian team clashed with Nasajpour’s beliefs, so he left and sought asylum in the United States in 2015.
However, loneliness ensued as Nasajpour tried to finish what he had started with his college education and Paralympic aspirations amid a cycle of new challenges. He pinballed as far west as San Francisco and as far east as Buffalo, New York.
“I had no family, friends, once I arrived, so I had to manage everything by myself,” he said.
He managed to find a home base in Tucson, where he resumed and capped off his undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona. But he had no country to compete for.
A year ahead of the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the International Olympic Committee announced the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team. Inspired by that concept, Nasajpour campaigned for an equivalent at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. For everyone who heard his pitch and said no, Nasajpour persisted.
“I kept talking to different people until it happened,” he said.
The Independent Paralympic Athletes Team also debuted at the Rio Games for athletes with official refugee or asylum status.
But first, there was another snag. Nasajpour’s visa had lapsed. Consequently, he could not cross any borders at the time of the Games.
“Everyone told me there is no way to expand your case,” he said.
Considering the work he had to put in to help make the IPA a reality, he wasn’t deterred from having to put in more in able to compete in Rio.
Nasajpour turned to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. He obtained support letters and notes of recommendation from his Buffalo-based coach to underscore his extenuating circumstances.
When he presented the papers to immigration officials, they were unmoved.
“They said, ‘No, there’s no way,’” he recalled.
And so Nasajpour continued with a game-changing filibuster.
“I kept talking,” he said, “for about 40-45 minutes.”
By meeting’s end, he had clearance to join Syrian-born swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein (then living in Greece) in comprising the inaugural IPA. Nasajpour proceeded to finish 11th in his competition and bear his squad’s flag at the Closing Ceremony, the ultimate reward for expediting a formality that, he says, “usually takes three to four years.”
Nasajpour garnered his green card one year after Rio, then U.S. citizenship in 2022, one year after he competed at the Tokyo Paralympics. There the renamed Refugee Paralympic Team tripled to six athletes, and Nasajpour placed eighth in his event.
Competing in Tokyo increased his profile to American athletes, as well as his eagerness to join them. For that, perseverance had to yield to patience. But one year after securing citizenship, Nasajpour took to this past spring’s national championships, where his performance spawned his passport to the Parapan Ams.
With that, he’s set to compete for his third different flag once the Parapan Ams start. This one, on every level, is already the most rewarding, and a step up beyond belief.
“Making Team USA, whether in the Olympics or Paralympics, it’s the hardest in the world,” he said with a tinge of awe. “I know that.”
Al Daniel is a freelance features writer and contributor to usparatf.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter @WriterAlDaniel.