Photo: Iowa’s Jaydin Eierman (left, wrestling Nebraska’s Chad Red in January) and...
Sesker’s story of Johnston’s painful immigration from Iran to enjoying the American dream
By Mike Finn
The English translation of “Afsoon” is “good omen” and that was never more true than on Aug. 16, 1972, when a little girl by that name was born in Tehran, Iran, to Manu and Jila Roshanzamir.
Because 48 years later, wrestling fans — or anyone who loves the American dream — will likely be inspired by one of the sport’s newest books. It’s an amazing story of the U.S.’s first World medalist in women’s wrestling — an incredible feat that gave hope to her parents at a time when world events made life very difficult.
And thanks to the effort of wrestling author Craig Sesker, the story of that woman — Afsoon Johnston — can be read in the book, “Afsoon.”
Sesker has written 10 books on wrestling — including “Bobby Douglas” — but this may be his best effort. The 206-page biography of Afsoon (Roshanzamir) Johnston is an easy read and in three hours time Sesker does a masterful job of drawing readers into her unique life.
In addition, I felt like I was reading a future movie screenplay about this woman, who admitted a movie producer actually approached her about making a movie about her life when she was in high school.
“The problem is that they didn’t know how to finish it,” Afsoon told me. “That is still a big hope of ours down the line.”
Now living in San Diego with her husband Byron Johnston and children Aidan, Layla and Samira, Afsoon has accomplished much in her life, especially in wrestling where she appeared in the first women’s World Championships in 1989 and later coached many of today’s women wrestlers and served as an assistant coach for the USA team at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
She is also happy that wrestling provided her a vehicle to tell her story.
“Wrestling is in my blood,” she told me. “My father was a wrestler in Iran and I turned out to be a girl. It seems like it was meant to be, even at a time when the United States did not have girls wrestling.”
Nearly a half-century ago, life was different for everyone, including Afsoon, who spent her early years in Iran about the time an Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979.
That was a political group who imposed a hatred for Western ways and the United States, where Afsoon (at age 7) was taught to yell “Marg bar Amirka” (Death to American) while stomping on the U.S. flag. This was also the era when Iranian extremists kidnapped 52 U.S. diplomats for 444 days.
At the same time, Afsoon and her family lost many of their freedoms while Iran went to war with Iraq and led to moments where she was forced to quickly remove roller skates as a young girl and run from the bombs that fell from the sky.
“It was almost like watching a movie because it felt like it was someone else out there,” Afsoon says in the book. “It was an awful time and it was scary. It was all just so surreal.”
But it was real. So too were the harsh rules (especially for women) of Islamic law, based on religion, and forced on her family, whether they were Muslims or not. And those who did not follow the rules were dealt with in horrific means.
One of those times came when as an 8-year-old she was warned to close her eyes from watching a typical site of those times.
“I still have that image of the person hanging from the crane in my mind today,” Afsoon relates to Sesker. “I vividly remember that. That is something you don’t forget.”
Afsoon also cannot forget a time in 1980 when Islamic revolutionary guards stormed into her grandmother’s home and demanded to see her aunt Shila.
Sesker writes, “A guard grabs Shila by the hair and drags her into the living room. And then throws her on the floor. She is sobbing and gasping for air as a female guard does a body search. Shila lies helplessly on the floor and her parents are hysterical.”
Afsoon later told me that she had to share those tough times, which could still haunt her today
“I wanted a book that would be motivational, where every young girl could pick up this book, whether they are a teenager or an older person, and it would be an enjoyable read that was both suspenseful and funny and would be an easy read,” she said.
Afsoon’s story eventually leads to the moments her father decided it was time to take his family from Iran. Eventually — and after an 11-year-old Afsoon and her mother were separated from their father for six months — they were reunited in San Jose, California, where two of her aunts lived and where they would take up a new life in a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose.
That year was 1984 and the Iranian hostage crisis was still on the minds of Americans, which made her immigration to the United States very tough. She also did not understand English when she arrived at her first day of sixth grade, two days after arriving in the USA.
Sesker relates one of those moments when Afsoon realized that not everyone in the USA welcomed her.
“A male classmate noticed her dark facial features and her black curly hair. ‘What nationality are you?’ ” he asked.
“Iranian,” Afsoon responded.
“You are a terrorist!” the boy shouted at her. “What are you doing in this country? Go back to where you came from.”
Afsoon later relates how she was blackballed at her school where no one spoke to her, but with the help of her family she survived those years and eventually ended up at Independence High School in 1987, when she and a friend walked by the school’s wrestling room.
It was about that time when a young man, Marco Sanchez, the school’s best wrestler, started giving Afsoon’s friend a hard time. Afsoon quickly stood up for her friend, before Sanchez yelled, “What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m not sure why I did it,” Afsoon says in the book, “but I blasted him with a double leg.”
That takedown by the then 98-pound freshman against the state’s top-ranked 119-pounder stunned Sanchez and a large group of students watching. But rather than going after Afsoon, Sanchez (later a member of the 1996 Puerto Rico Olympic team) befriended Afsoon and invited her to join the boys wrestling team.
She still remembers when she met David Chaid, the head wrestling coach, who told her it would be tough being the only girl on a competitive team of at least 100 boys … and said the following on her first day of tryouts:
“I’m not going to cut anybody from the team,” he said. “You will cut yourself. The practice will be so hard that you keep going until five guys quit and walk out of the wrestling room. If you mentally don’t have what it takes, you will not make the team.”
Afsoon did not quit the team, despite the fact she rarely won or that boys refused to wrestle her. Once an opponent literally ran from the mat after the whistle blew with Afsoon chasing him to find out why he would not wrestle her.
By 1989, more girls started to wrestle in the United States and around the world, which led to FILA creating the first World Championships in Martigny, Switzerland. At age 16, and even though she was yet a U.S. citizen, Afsoon made that team and eventually claimed her country’s first medal when she claimed a bronze medal at 103 pounds. World teammates Asia DeWeese (110 pounds) and Leia Kawaii (154) later earned silver medals in the inaugural Worlds.
Afsoon won another medal in 1990 and continued to represent the United States in five World Championships while she attended college at UC Davis. She eventually stepped away from competing in 2000 and from coaching in 2002, but was asked by U.S. National coach Terry Steiner to assist with the 2014 World Team and 2016 Olympic squad.
In the book she talked about how she felt fortunate to accomplish so much. Later, I asked her if she took more pride in what she accomplished as an Iranian immigrant or as a U.S. pioneer in women’s wrestling.
“I’m going to say both,” she said. “I’m proud of it all because deep down as an Iranian immigrant I’ve been able to come to this great country and accomplish what I’ve been able to accomplish because of wrestling, especially when there were not a lot of opportunities then.
“Wrestling gives you so much in dealing with life and overcoming challenges. You learn to become a fighter.
“Wrestling helped me overcome a lot of my challenges. Wrestling gave me a lot of confidence and helped me become the person I did become.”