From Iran to Rio-A wrestling pioneer in our midst

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There are some things immediately obvious about Afsoon Johnston. Her radiating smile equals instant approachability, she’s a mom with commanding knowledge of the sports her kids play as she roots them on from the sidelines, and her tenacity goes far beyond where other people would just give up. Spend a little time in her company and it is not surprising to learn, she is a two-time world wrestling medalist. Her 1989 World bronze medal was the first World medal for the United States in women’s wrestling.

There are some things immediately obvious about Afsoon Johnston. Her radiating smile equals instant approachability, she’s a mom with commanding knowledge of the sports her kids play as she roots them on from the sidelines, and her tenacity goes far beyond where other people would just give up. Spend a little time in her company and it is not surprising to learn, she is a two-time world wrestling medalist. Her 1989 World bronze medal was the first World medal for the United States in women’s wrestling. That’s one of the main reasons why she was assigned as one of the 2016 US Women’s Wrestling coach for the Olympics in Rio. 

“There is always a way,” Johnston has said. That philosophy has carried her from one hurdle of life to another. From a young girl growing up in war-torn Iran to a teenage girl in America fighting for the chance to wrestle on the boys high school wrestling team, to becoming a ground-breaking world championship medalist, now a renowned USA Women’s Wrestling coach, Johnston just has an inherent winning mentality.

“Other families played board games,” Johnston remembered about her childhood in Iran. Her father, a winning wrestler in their home country, would move aside their living room furniture and teach his only child, Afsoon free style technique and wrestling moves. In her family, it’s what they did. Once her family moved to the USA, her acquired wrestling knowledge and skill met with opportunity. In 1986, Johnston approached the coach of Independence High School in San Jose, what she called a powerhouse of wrestling, and asked to join the team.

“Here’s this 98 pound little girl, freshman that shows up in a cheerleading outfit, and says ‘Hey, I want to join your wrestling team’.”

The coach refused, called her father expecting a rebuke, but got the opposite. With her parent’s approval and a fearless attitude, Johnston joined the team. She had less to fear in America, she said, because she didn’t have to worry about getting shot for participating in a men’s sport. Still there was a barrier to be broken down, and the stage was now set for her to break gender barriers not only at the high school level, but later, on larger, international stages.

Before Johnston’s first official wrestling match, the referee cited her hair as too long, telling her it would need to conform to the standards if she were to compete. She took a pair of scissors and cut her hair mat-side, watching it fall into a garbage can. 

“He was so against me wrestling,” she said. 

That same referee just inducted Johnston into the California Wrestling Hall of Fame, this past May. “It [the induction] brought back all those memories of how they made me feel, I was this weird circus side show freak, they called me every name in the book. It wasn’t an easy road. But for them to applaud me and give me a standing ovation, it came full circle.”

Wrestling led Johnston to her next big decisions in her life — going to UC Davis and training with the men’s wrestling team, and joining the first ever women’s national wrestling team in 1989. 

Johnston, the freestyle wrestler with the most experience on the team, won that first wrestling medal for the USA. In 1990, she won a World Championship silver medal. 

From 1989 to 2000, Johnston stayed active in women’s wrestling. She had reason to believe the Olympics were a possibility, and set her sights on 2000.  “The IOC [International Olympic Committee] was going to add women’s wrestling into the 2000 Olympics, but no new sports were added in 2000. Women’s wrestling was going to debut in 2004. So I was at that crossroads in 2000. So I retired, went to graduate school, started a family, started a career,” she said. “My dream had always been to compete in the Olympics, because I had already competed in the world championship. As an athlete, the Olympics are as high as you can go.”

Retired from competition maybe, but Johnston did anything but give up on the sport she loved. She had chartered a course with the sport that was in her blood, her history, and although the destination may have changed, the goal did not.

All the while practicing as a physical therapist, and growing her family.

A little more than a month after her first born arrived Johnston left her son with her husband, Byron, to coach the Junior World and Pan-Am championships in Venezuela.

“It was the hardest thing I had done in wrestling up to that point.” Her husband, Johnston said, has been tremendous in his support from day one. Johnston’s network of family and friends is solid, but having a husband who believes in what she’s doing has helped Johnston every step of her journeys abroad. “They say behind every successful man is a strong woman, but I think the reverse is very true, I would not have been able to do all of this If I hadn’t had a supportive partner who says, ‘I think you’re my equal, I think you would’ve supported me if this was my thing and there is no reason I shouldn’t support you in your thing,’” Johnston said. 

Johnston proudly mentioned that Helen Maroulis, the 2016 women’s wrestling gold medalist from Maryland, just did a locker room talk for the Baltimore Ravens. Things have changed, they are changing, and there is proof just about everywhere you look. 

That wouldn’t be the case without women like Johnston who weren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. “In my lifetime, that’s the thing I am glad to see, how far women’s wrestling has come, how far women have come.” 

It’s a topic on which Johnston speaks with authority, but humility. Each one of her successes, each goal reached opened a door for someone else with similar dreams of reaching the top, or knocking down a roadblock in their way. In a coaching and mentor role now, Johnston is sharing what she’s learned along the way, encouraging the kind of hard work that propelled her. Johnston gives a nod to hard work, but she seemed just as proud about the creative problem solving she and women like her have employed along the road to equality.

“This whole thing has been thinking outside of the box,” she said. “If someone tells you can’t, or it hasn’t been done this way in the past, I don’t care about that. Let’s find a different way. Let’s not limit ourselves. I hate when people limit themselves and something that I try and teach my kids. If that doesn’t work, let’s figure out something else and if it hasn’t been done before, let’s create it. ‘No’ is not the end point.”

It is only natural that Johnston’s fortitude carries over into her parenting. She doesn’t expect her kids to follow in her footsteps, or her footsteps, but she does require their best in what they choose to do. It’s also important to her that her children learn that they can have, and master, multiple roles. “I hope I can be an example for my kids. The bigger picture is that I am going to teach you strength and resilience, and that you can do it all. It takes hard work, and it takes going against the grain. And that’s okay.”

In all of this, from a living room in Iran to the Olympics in Rio to back home in East County, Johnston exudes a gratitude for what she’s been able to do. What that radiant smile and approachability of hers means for the rest of us is that star quality, though extraordinary, somehow touches us all, and more importantly, inspires us all. 

Greatness is within reach (with hard work!). It isn’t just for places like Rio or Tokyo 2020. In fact, Johnston believes San Diego is the best place on earth.

“All of my travels, all over the world. Really. When people ask me where are you from, I say, I am from the United States. I tell them I am from California, San Diego. We here in San Diego live in the best place in the world. On earth. We really do. And I am qualified to say that.”

After taking the “not easy” road, she is more than qualified.

That road has never failed to produce highs and lows for Johnston. Her high point was making history, twice.  Her low point is not winning a gold, and the fact that the Olympics was not a possibility for her. Those missed opportunities that can be haunting.

Talking about the missed opportunities, the look in Johnston’s eyes becomes more serious, the smile on her face has a hint of disappointing reality. But Johnston does not give off any feelings of regret. Especially after coming home from Rio, when there was so much to be happy about. 

Earlier this month, Johnston received a surprise delivery of flowers from Helen Maroulis, Adeline Gray and Haley Augello, with a card thanking her for leaving her family to help them pursue their dreams. 

Johnston helped them find their way there. Because there is always a way.

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