Interview with Azita Akhtarkhavari, Zoroastrian athlete

Be determined and never say you cannot

Azita Akhtarkhavari is a Zoroastrian sportswoman born on 12 Bahman 1359 (February 1, 1981). She is a graduate in food industry, has worked in this field for nearly six years, and has been the technical supervisor of various companies’ factories, laboratories and an inspector of various companies. Akhtarkhavari was forced to leave her specialty and is now an accounting expert in the pension fund of the Ministry of Oil.

She started her sports activities professionally with badminton and was a player in the research sciences department of Tehran Azad University and an oil company club team member. She also has a refereeing and badminton coaching certificate on her sports record. In an interview in the office of Amordad weekly, we asked Azita Akhtarkhavari about her work and sports activities.

My first steps in sports

I used to do gymnastics as a child and teenager. Then I took up swimming and a short course in skiing. All this is before I decided on a professional field. After turning 18, I got trained in badminton. This is how I became known and was invited to Azad University team. There they found out that my mother is an employee of the oil company, and I am also a member of the oil group. They invited me to be a player in their club.

While I was playing badminton, they suggested that I practice squash. Even though I didn’t practice squash for more than three or four weeks, I won joint third place in the group competition held in Heydarnia hall. Squash is a game that I like very much, but it is risky, and I am not one for challenges and risks. Whether it was when I was playing badminton or now when I’m a climber, I don’t take chances.

I have also learned darts, which helped me a lot. Because the games of the oil company are for those under 26 years old, I could not be a team player, and I became the supervisor of the matches and coached. I was a referee for many years. With the coaching certificate I got, I taught in municipal teams and had students. I also referred to organizations within our community, to see if they wanted me to do coaching work for fellow badminton enthusiasts, but since I had yet not received my coaching certificate at that time, they said it was not possible, and I did not follow up.

Let’s make the most of our time

I must add here that to start anything you need motivation. I always like to make the most of my time. I had a job and was not looking to profit from badminton or any other field. I aimed to attend classes, receive training and coaching, and get a degree. This seldom happened in the badminton federation. But fortunately, at that time, Mrs. Simin Mahdavi held a coaching course at the oil company. Mrs Mahdavi, who coached me, is a national coach and has won many ranks in sports.  She has also been a coach in the Oil Company’s club. She has always been a role model for her students. A got my coaching certificate by participating in her class.

However, I had to take time off to attend a coaching training course. I passed the course and got the coaching certificate. At the same time, I started teaching my colleagues at the Shahid Shiroudi complex and training at Vesal Club. If I am not mistaken, it was in 2016 or 2017 (2018 or 2020) that Vesal Club invited me to teach coaching, but the hours that were given were not convenient for the children and so the class was cancelled. This may have lasted only for a month; in any case, I had my own students and continued working with them. Then came the coronavirus and there was a gap between the classes. In the beginning everyone was scared and no one came to practice. I myself gave up sports temporarily. Then slowly, the children gathered again and our sports activities were renewed. Of course, lack of proper planning resulted in having the ground for only 1.5 months out of the 3 months of summer. Unfortunately, against my wish, we continued our work in Laleh Park.

I disagreed with the arrangement, especially in a field of sports like badminton, which is full of movement and speed. But there was no other solution, so we had to continue despite all the difficulties, upto the point where we could not continue in the park, due to air pollution and the cold season. I spoke with Mrs Namiranian in the Anjuman. She agreed to provide a hall for Fridays in Anoushirvan high school.  So as not to lose the halls the children attended the classes. Despite difficulties that sometimes occur, I want to do whatever I can for my community and my fellow believers.

The beginning of mountaineering

Since 1396 (2018) I, very accidentally, started mountaineering. I grew up in a family that likes to travel and have fun. At that time, when I had not yet started climbing, a situation occurred where I felt that my soul and body had lost their balance. At that time I and my colleagues heard news in the office that the mountaineering team of the Oil Company was accepting members.  I got in touch and asked about their programs, and saw that they do not have categories, like other groups, and beginners and advance climbers participated together (although they had separate program for each group). I participated in the programs; my intention was actually to have fun and do some hiking. For example, when we went to Dashte Havij (Havij plain) they would climb Parson and Saka peaks and other places, and I would stay with the others, and we would roam the plain and wait for them to return. In the meantime, we were enjoying nature. We used to pick medicinal plants and had a lot of fun.

It might have been end of 1396 (2018) or beginning of 1397 (2019) that the group decided to climb Alvand peak. I was told to stay in the shelter until they came back. I said: No, I want to come. They looked at me surprised and said: You can’t, it’s too hard. But I felt that I could. Until then, I had never wanted to take any risk or hurt myself. But this time I decided to climb the peak with them because I had enough practice. If I wouldn’t go, I would regret it for the rest of my life. God helped, and I went and experienced the four seasons from Alvand’s shelter to the peak itself. One of my dreams is to climb Alvand again. This climb was delightful. Every spring that we came across, a different climate met us; either rain or hail or snow or sunshine and even strong winds that blew, and if we were not careful, the cover of our bags would be blown away.

The miracles of creation can be seen in the mountains

I have been to many peaks in Iran, with members of our team.  Before each major program, (for example, before climbing Alam Kooh), we had to climb six mountains. For Damavand we did the same, and in every peak, we climbed we could see the greatness of God and his creation.

The exercises I performed before each climb (like yoga) helped me inhale and exhale or to focus and be relaxed while climbing. Those who have climbed the mountain know that there are places where the climber gets tired. There are reasons. Maybe he didn’t sleep well, the weather was hot or cold, or he was not in a good mood. He must deal with these conditions for a good climb and landing. Six of my colleagues started climbing with me when I started climbing in the women’s group. I was the only one who continued. Now, if I take the name of “Chin Kalagh” (a peak) next to my co-climbers they will run away!  It was a difficult climb. They don’t even want to hear its name anymore. All because we had no experience, and we didn’t even take enough of water with us.

We were without water for 3 hours. When we reached down, our supervisor took one liter of mineral water from one of the janitors. Each of us got only one bottle of water to quench our thirst. This happened when descending.  We suffered a lot and were very upset. That’s why my colleagues didn’t come anymore. That’s why climbing, apart from the equipment, requires a passion for enduring hardships and continuing. Other exercises should be done which will come to our help during mountaineering. Climbing can cause both injuries and a lot of fatigue. Many people who experience this don’t want to continue anymore and say: What is the point of going through so much trouble and going up and coming back down again?! So, I must say that passion for this sport is important. We must work on ourselves so as to increase our tolerance in difficult climbing conditions, and be able to experience a better climb.

When I was planning to climb Damavand, many discouraged me, saying that I won’t be able to climb Damavad.  When I finished the climb successfully, they congratulated me and said that they never thought I could do it. I didn’t have the right shoes for such a climb then. If you see my climbing photos, you will notice that neither my shoes nor my baton has changed. It’s because I can still climb with these shoes and baton. With this equipment, I climbed most of the peaks of Iran. Maybe this is not correct, but, well, this is how I think.

Chess, another experience

Before the corona pandemic, the Pension Fund group of Ministry of Oil, organized a sports event for its employees in Yazd. I wanted to participate in this tournament, but badminton was not among the games. They asked me to choose another game. So, I chose chess because my mother taught me this game when I was a child, and we played together. There was a week left until the beginning of the games, and how could I learn chess better in this short time? The night before the flight to Yazd, I asked one of my acquaintances to teach me. He taught me whatever he thought was important for me to remember, in 2-3 hours, and I went to the competition with just this much skill. On the day of the game, all the players were under stress, even though they had experienced participation in many tournaments. But, I knew how to control my anxiety even though I was not a chess player. It is because I have learned how to plan ahead and thus be ahead of my plans. I participated with this mentality and won my games, and those who knew I was not a professional chess player were amazed at the result I had achieved. I lost only the last match against an opponent who had first place in the province and finished second.

Facing the challenges of climbing

Those who have done mountain climbing know the challenges and risks of this sport. Now-a-days, I don’t do any winter climbing. Holding a pickaxe when there is the possibility of slipping, and there is wind, and the risk of falling, is not my call. My tolerance for cold is low, and on the other hand, I don’t start anything unless I am sure of it being safe. When we wanted to climb Damavand, I wanted to go from the north side, and in one day, because I didn’t want to carry so much load with me, but it was suggested that if I want to see the beauties of Damavand and also have fun, I should go for two days from the south side because it was an easier climb. I did it, and experienced great beauties; it was perfect. Without having the intention, I happened to convert climbing as nature tour into a professional sport.

If you ask me which sport I have enjoyed most, and am enjoying and will enjoy, I will name badminton and mountain climbing. But when I was a teenager skiing was attractive for me. In any sport, you have to be agile. Otherwise, you will get injured. Climbing should be started at the age of 16-17. If I had started at that age, I would have climbed more peaks; I could have even experienced ascending peaks abroad. I always regret not having started to climb earlier.

Sports in Zoroastrian society

The classes they gave me to teach the children all started at 8 am. But, which child wakes up early enough to be in class at that hour? Badminton is a sport that requires constant running and movement. There is no time to walks during training. Movements should be quick. The class is one hour at maximum, and in this little time, we had to do aerobic sports and stepping and hitting training. We did not rest for a moment. Many children in our society are interested in badminton, but do they want to continue this field professionally or not? They said they would like to do such a thing whenever I asked. But when they grow up and get familiar with other sports, their interest will change, like mine. I started with badminton, but then I started climbing. I also did yoga and Pilates (stretching exercises). Nothing is predictable.

Let me add that only a few can have the privileges that I had. I’m not talking about time. Time can be planned.  But what about the facilities and expenses and being member in different clubs? I was going to badminton class, doing darts, and practicing squash for an hour, and I had the opportunity to be in all these classes. Because our club was in the oil company, and I could work in at least three fields simultaneously. It requires its own skills. I played until I was 26 years old. Then I became the head of the oil team. I also judged. Now the field that I continue professionally is mountaineering. In climbing, you have to go step by step. He wants his skills. I had to take courses in snow and ice and many other climbing skills. Experience is more important in badminton. You will not reach the next shot if you are stuck in the first movement.

Do not lose hope

I learned from experience that you should not lose hope in your work and sports. It is the same in climbing. It may not be easy, but if you decide to climb to the top, you must keep going until the end. You can’t give up in the middle of the climb. Build up your will power and leave aside any negativity. When climbing, you should never look at the peak and think about how much is left. You must see how you have come and know how far you have come. Besides sports, if I have time, I like to learn knitting techniques. Now I have knitted some shawls and tablecloths, which I like. I also enjoy cooking. My suggestion is not to lose hope and not to expect others to support you. Keep on working and trying.  In the course of my own efforts, I do not blame anyone because I am happy that I have been successful. I have no complaint that others were not interested in seeing my certificates and did not encourage me. I learned not to expect from anyone and to try by myself. I have always said that we are responsible to our ancestors as Zoroastrians. We may have suffered much less than them. Despite all the difficulties they have had, they did not stop trying. We should also do whatever we can, wherever we are. If we don’t, we are doing wrong to ourselves and our community. I am sorry that we have training facilities and spaces among us Zoroastrians that we are not using to their full capacity.

Azita Akhtarkhavari Be determined and never say you cannot Azita Akhtarkhavari Azita Akhtarkhavari


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June 8, 2023