Ardeshir Asgari of Cal State Fullerton was a bit awe-struck when he first took to the mat in last week's NCAA Division I wrestling championships at Iowa City, Iowa.
The 158-pounder from Tehran, Iran couldn't believe 15,000 people would pay $10 a ticket to watch wrestling matches. But Asgari didn't feel any pressure. A little nervous maybe, but not pressured.
Pressure is staying alive as an 18-year-old soldier for the Revolutionary Guard in war-torn Beirut. Pressure is keeping one step ahead of the Iranian government after defecting. Or deciding which method of death--self-induced starvation or execution by the government--is better after being told you are being sent back to Iran.
Indeed, Asgari took a liking to the noisy home of the Iowa Hawkeyes, who went on to win their ninth straight NCAA team title. So much so that he won his first four matches and advanced to the semifinals before being eliminated. He finished sixth and earned All-American honors. He was the first Titan wrestler to make it to the semifinals and only the second to be named All-American.
But Asgari's trek to the NCAA championships was nothing, compared to his journey to freedom.
"I was sent to Beirut for three months while I was in the Revolutionary Guard," Asgari, 23, said. "I was so scared, watching all those people kill each other.
"In Persia (Iran), they wash everybody's minds. There is a lot of propaganda. They say you must fight for religion and if you die while fighting, you are a hero, you go to heaven. I could not believe in that. I didn't want to die. When I was in Beirut, I decided to defect."
Asgari got his chance when he was 19 and a member of Iran's army wrestling team. The team went to Caracas, Venezuela for the military world championships, and after their last matches, Asgari and three others sneaked away.
"My father works in the government for (Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini. He is still mad at me. I call home, but he won't talk to me. He hangs up the phone. He thinks I am the Devil.
"The team (in Caracas) was supposed to leave in the morning, so we left at 2 a.m. when they were asleep. We hid for a couple of days.
"If they catch us, they kill us."
After coming out of hiding, the group, which included Asgari's current Fullerton teammate Morteza Abedi, went to see Venezuelan immigration officials. They were promptly jailed and told they would be sent back to Iran.
"I told them, 'They will kill me if I go back, so I might as well die here.' I stopped eating for two days and got sick. They sent me to the hospital. Finally, they believed me and said they wouldn't send me back."
That was just the beginning of Asgari's odyssey, though. He had no money and no friends in Venezuela. For two months, he slept in a park and survived by digging through the trash for scraps of food outside an expensive restaurant.
After six months in Venezuela, he was able to get to France, where he was befriended by the anti-Khomeini resistance group Moujahedeen. Asgari spent the next year in France and Spain before finally being granted refugee status by the U.S.
"They sent me to St. Louis," he said. "But I had a friend in Michigan, and they let me go there to live with him. I stayed there for two months and then moved to California."
He joined his old friend, Abedi, in San Jose. The pair then entered Cal State Bakersfield to wrestle. At Bakersfield last season, Asgari finished seventh in the nation to earn Division II All-America honors.
Asgari's stay at Bakersfield was short-lived. Coach Joe Seay left to take a job at Oklahoma State and was replaced by T.J. Kerr, who ran practices like a drill sergeant. That didn't go over well with Asgari.
So when Bakersfield assistant Joe Gonzales left to join Coach Dan Lewis at Fullerton, Asgari followed, as did Abedi, Bob Button and Shawn Dreitzler. Asgari became eligible at the beginning of the second semester.
"I love it here," said Asgari, an international business major. "I will stay here. I want to bring my family over here, especially my sister. But my father does not want to come.
"Dan Lewis is the best coach I have had in my life. He has made me mentally tough. I used to lose all my close matches. Now I win them because of Dan Lewis."
Asgari's improvement this season is a source of pride for Lewis, who points out that Asgari had wrestled freestyle (Olympic style) all his life until last season. Freestyle differs from collegiate wrestling in that there is less mat wrestling. Wrestlers are on their feet most of the time in freestyle, which features more takedowns than collegiate.
"Ardeshir is so strong on his feet, it's almost impossible to take him down," Lewis said. "I think he was only taken down twice all year. And offensively, he scores most of his points on his feet. He has really impressed me. He has learned to wrestle collegiate style."