Elaheh Gholi Fallah has always been an inspiring, defiant figure but the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games changed everything.
“It is when I understood we can try and we can live regardless of discrimination, regardless of difference of culture, regardless of different category. We can be together and try together,” said Fallah, who competed in Para cross-country skiing.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Fallah was the first and so far the only Iranian woman to qualify for the Paralympic Winter Games. Vision impaired from the age of five, due to fluid in the brain and a tumour, she has long refused to let her disability define her. Six months after losing her sight, she started riding a bicycle and was soon going out on her own, despite her parents’ understandable fury. Track and field followed at school but then came Para Nordic skiing and the opportunity to change her life and the lives of others.
“I would like to be a pioneer in skiing for vision impaired people. When I started skiing that was one of my goals; for example that we make a team of athletes,” Fallah said. “I don’t like to try just for my life, I like to try for all disabled people who I can help.”
Having taken up Para Nordic skiing in 2017, the Paralympic Games came fast. Fallah finished 11th in the B1 women’s 1.5km sprint classic but she picked up things far more important than just a finishing position.
“I found some friends from different nationalities. I learned new things, new techniques in skiing, new things in sport, in different cultures,” she said. “One of the German coaches and athletes taught me a new technique to ski. I really appreciated it because it really helped me.”
And it is these experiences, these benefits that she wants to share, that she intends to share.
“Now I want in the next Paralympic Winter Games to not be alone,” Fallah said, before adding modestly, “I think there are a lot of women better qualified [to compete] than me, ladies who are better than me and can be more successful than me. I will try to find them and motivate them to join us and come and try.
“If we see a vision impaired team in 2022, really it will be one of the best feelings of my life.”
Dr Maryam Shokouhi, the Iran Paralympic Committee’s international affairs director, confirms that they have two or three visually impaired female Para Nordic skiers they feel confident could qualify for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games, if they can get classified in time.
While Dr Shokouhi asserts that they are only “at the beginning of a long journey” with female Paralympic winter athletes, there is no doubt who the leader is. And in 2019, Fallah was duly recognised for her trailblazing spirit with the BP Courage Award, presented at the IPC Sport and Media Awards.
“That award really motivated me more and more,” Fallah said. “It’s a very heavy responsibility on my shoulders, I understood that I have to help more and more Iranian disabled people. I have to show them, I have to prove to them that if they want, they can.”
An untimely recent injury, which required surgery and a recovery period of more than a month, means Fallah has not yet qualified for Beijing 2022. But she intends to do all she can to cement her spot in the coming months and, given what she has achieved so far, you would be a brave person to bet against her.
“I try to show, not just speak,” she said. “Not in a formal way but with my friends, with my actions.”